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By Harry Preston
The Jewish Ghetto, famed as the setting for Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, dates from 1516 when the Council of Ten was pursuing its policy of zoning Venice. Murano was given over to glass production, Arsenale to ship building and the northerly island where there once stood a foundry (geto) became the home of Venice's Jewish population who had arrived as refugees from the mainland. Venice was a tolerant host and Jews were allowed to trade in medicine, money-lending and textiles. The Ghetto (which was to give its name to all other ghettos in Europe) was cordoned off by canals and entered by two water gates manned by Christian guards.
Although Napoleon removed the gates when he attacked Venice, the Austrians reinstalled them when they took over the city after the Congress of Vienna in 1815. Venice's Jewish population was not fully emancipated until 1866 when the city became part of the new kingdom of Italy. By that time. two satellite ghettos, Ghetto Vecchio and Ghetto Novissimo, strained to accommodate a population that had swelled to 5,000.
Because of overcrowding, houses in the Ghetto were built as high as possible, but these Venetian skyscrapers were forbidden to be more than one-third taller than any other Venetian building. As a result, as many storeys as possible were crammed in, resulting in ceilings that are lower than anywhere else in Venice. Nowadays, the Ghetto is inhabited by only five Jewish families, but it still maintains its kosher food shops, a Jewish bakery and two synagogues. The Museo Ebraico here shows visitors many 17th- and 19th-century Ghetto artefacts followed by guided tours of the area's German, Spanish and Levantine synagogues.
For more information about Venice, Italy visit GuidedTourVenice.com.
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