Jews in Venice and Shakespeare
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Jews in Venice and Shakespeare

Venice : Italy | Nov 19, 2011 at 1:06 AM PST
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Jewish Quarter in Venice

The Jews of Venice never numbered more than 5,000 in a city that at times had over a quarter-of-a-million inhabitants. Yet they attained a level of intellectual achievement, commercial importance, wealth and social acceptance unparalleled elsewhere in Europe.

It is not clear when the Jews first came to Venice, though it is certain that they first came as merchants. By 1152, Venetian records speak of 1,300 Jews living in the environs of the city, although they were not necessarily allowed to live within the city itself. By the middle of the thirteenth century they were confined to the island of Spinalunga across the channel from San Marco. There they had to deposit their merchandise and conduct business, and they were not supposed to enter the city itself. Later legislation gave them a little more latitude and allowed them to remain in the city for at most a fortnight before having to return to Spinalunga, or – as it now became known, possibly because of its inhabitants – Giudecca. These regulations were easily evaded; the Jews merely transacted their business, returned to their island for one day, then came back to Venice for another fortnight's stay. A battle of wits was constantly waged between the Venetian and the Jew.

In the end, the Venetian government made a virtue of economic necessity, formalising its relations with the Jews by means of an agreement, or condotta , first concluded in 1366 and thereafter frequently renewed until the eighteenth century. The terms of the earliest condotta permitted the Jews to operate loan banks for the poor and to deal in secondhand goods, but at a stiff price of annual payments to the state. The negotiations that commenced whenever the condotta was due for renewal were tough, exorbitant and frantic, impossible demands being met with adamant threats to leave; this actually happened in 1395, when the Jewish bankers quit the city, precipitating a minor economic crisis.

Naturally, they returned, and the game of bluff and double bluff was resumed. Whatever new conditions the government formally imposed – whether of having to wear the yellow star in public, or of limiting Jewish residence in Venice to a fortnight in any year – such legislation was usually in practice ignored by both sides, provided that the state received from its Jewish inhabitants its regular financial. tribute. However high the religious feeling against Jews, and despite the sporadic agitation of the Dominican and Franciscan orders, it was Jewish money that helped build the Doge's fleet, that procured luxuries for the aristocracy and sustained the poor. On the other hand, there was still no continuous residence permitted in the city itself.

In 1386 Venice acquired control of the island of Corfu, which had an honoured and important Jewish community. Shortly afterwards Turkish power began to rise on the ruins of the old Byzantine Empire. In 1479, and in the interests of mutual economic expansion, Venice and Turkey concluded a peace treaty. The Jews of the Levant became regular visitors to Venice, accorded a courtesy in keeping with their mercantile importance. And not only merchants came. Jewish physicians were in great demand at the Courts of Europe, and at the Vatican itself, because of expertise acquired in the Muslim world, then the centre of every branch of medicine and science.

By now, Venice was an international city, approaching the height of her power, and her Jewish community was a cosmopolitan one, made up of the original merchants, of businessmen from the East who trafficked in international trade, and of refugees and marranos escaping from the Spanish Inquisition. Of these last, the most illustrious were the Abrabanel family, with Don Isaac Abrabanel, philosopher, scholar, financier and statesman, at its head. Venice was an affluent, confident, swaggering city and her Jews flourished accordingly.

This did not last long. In 1508 the Emperor Maximilian formed with the Pope, France, Spain, and most of the other Italian states the League of Cambrai, whose aim was to conquer and partition the Venetian possessions. The city's armed forces were defeated at Agnadello in May, 1509, and her whole territory laid open to conquest. 1"he Jews suffered disproportionately, being a first object of attack by the invaders and of suspicion by the defeated inhabitants. Their houses were sacked and they were forced to flee. Mestre, at the gates of Venice, was burned to the ground, but the pledges in the Jewish loan banks – many of which were located there – were rescued in time, and Jewish refugees sought haven in Venice itself, a right guaranteed to them in times of emergency by the terms of their condotta. Over 5,000 refugees installed themselves in the three parishes of San Canciano, San Agostino, and San Geremia, and with characteristic resilience resumed their mainland banking activities. Indeed, when Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year – came round, they were formally permitted to hold divine services, a privilege that had been forbidden in Venice throughout the previous century.

Slowly, and with the help of huge war loans and levies extorted from the Jewish community, Venice recovered from her defeat, and cautiously set about reconquering her mainland territories. As the immediate danger receded Venetians realised, however, that despite their long efforts to keep the city clear from the taint of disbelief, there now lived among them a considerable and unrestricted Jewish population. A stringent curfew was imposed, and all mainland Jews, except licensed bankers, were ordered to return there within a month. Once again, the usual round of bartering began, but this time popular feeling was running high against the Jews. Contrary to the laws of the Republic, they had founded synagogues, where regular public worship was held. The wealthiest of them had established themselves, with irksome ostentation, in some of the finest palazzi and apartments of the city. Their physicians were monopolising medical practice. At Eastertide, when previously they had prudently stayed out of Venice, they were now seen everywhere. Christian preachers in their pulpits drew an easy connection between Venice's current woes and the proliferation of Jews. There was a growing feeling that the Jewish community should at least be segregated and effectively controlled.

Faced with the dilemma that Jewish money was needed but Christian opinion could not be ignored, the Venetian Senators first proposed that all Jews should be sent to live on Giudecca, that island where they had originally established themselves centuries before. The leading Jewish bankers rejected the proposal. Giudecca was too dangerous, and a barracks for the city’s mercenary army. They would prefer Murano, the garden of Venice, famous not only for its glass manufacture but for the sumptuous patrician villas recently erected on it. This counter-suggestion was rejected.

A year later, once more at Eastertide, the matter was raised again. This time the neighbourhood of the Ghetto Nuovo , the new foundry where cannon were cast, was proposed and enthusiastically endorsed by the Senators. The new foundry area was in the north of the city and cut off on all sides by canals. The Jewish response was vehement and desperate. Whereas at present they lived among Christian gentlemen and could count on them, as well as the Rialto guards, for protection if necessary, in the new foundry area they would be utterly isolated and open to attack in the event of disturbance. Moreover, the dealers in secondhand clothes and commodities had recently spent large sums in setting up their shops on the Rialto, and would now be faced with ruin. Many of the Jews would rather leave Venice than submit to such treatment.

It was to no avail. On April 10th, 1516, the Jews of Venice had to transfer themselves to their new place of residence. Two gateways were cut into the high walls surrounding the Ghetto Nuovo, and manned by Christian guards who closed them at night and could prevent unauthorised entry and egress. Only the official Jewish community, mainly of German, origin, was confined to the Ghetto Nuovo; the Levantine merchants still lived and moved where they pleased, sharing none of the burdens of their German and Italian co-religionists. In 1541, however, they too were officially segregated. There was no room for them in the Ghetto Nuovo, where rents had gone up by one-third with Jewish settlement and where, because of an edict against extending horizontally, new accommodation had been added vertically, by the ramshackle addition of extra floors to existing buildings. So a gate was removed. from the wall and the adjoining Ghetto Vecchio , the old foundry, was given over to the Levantine Jews. Before long, however, a third community, the Ponentine or western, as it was called, made up of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, established itself in the Ghetto Vecchio and speedily outstripped the other two in terms of wealth, culture and influence in the outside world.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Venetian Jewish community was at its largest, approximately 4,000 souls in a city of 190,000 inhabitants. The heyday of the Venetian Republic had already passed; but its Jewish minority was about to commence a period of intellectual and cultural splendour unrivalled elsewhere in Europe, unsurpassed even in the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry, and with no equivalent until nineteenth-century emancipation permitted the Jew to take his place as a more-or-less accepted member of general society. All the various tendencies of the different regions of Jewish settlement – Germany, Poland, Turkey, Amsterdam – blended and merged in Venice. Just as the merchandise of the Levant was unloaded at its wharves, to be transported by land and sea to the markets of Europe, so too ideas, thoughts, manners and characteristics mingled and received an impress from Jewish life in Venice before being transported in all directions. Urbane and aristocratic Marranos from Spain and Portugal rubbed shoulders with Talmudic scholars from Poland, with mystics from Jerusalem and Safed, with fugitives from the Rhineland, with old and proud Italian families, and with Iberian Jews of the Levant. Here sophistication and simplicity, tradition and enlightenment, science and superstition, Jewish and Christian thought, intermingled.

There is a pleasant conceit, penned by Francisco Sansovino, the scholar – son of the architect, whose Venetia, citta nobilissimo et singolare , published in 1604, still remains one of the greatest works on the city ever written – that the word Venetia signifies 'VENI ETIAM', that is 'come again and again, for however oft you come, you will always see new things and new beauties'. For the Jews this was certainly the case, and they recognised that Venice was no ordinary city nor their settlement there a mundane sojourn. The seventeenth-century Jew regarded Venice as the land of promise, 'its institutions divine', as wrote David de 'Pomi, somewhat hyperbolically, 'God himself has promised by the mouth of His prophet to preserve the Holy Republic'. Sansovino observed in his book that Venetian Jews were extremely wealthy and lived more willingly in Venice than in any other part of Italy because violence and tyranny were unknown against them and they dwelt in total peace, as patriotic as though Venice were their own fatherland. Rabbi Simone Luzzatto, a Venetian-born member of a very eminent Italian Jewish family, dedicated his philosophical discourse Socrates to the Doge, and wrote that words of admiration failed him in describing the virtues of his native city.

In seventeenth-century Venice, dedications by a Ghetto Jew to a Christian ruler were commonplace. That remarkable character Leone of Modena dedicated three of his books to non-Jews and undertook to write a history of Jewish customs for that royal pedant, King James I of England and VI of Scotland, at the urging of his Ambassador, Sir Henry Wotton. Another Luzzatto, Benedetto, dedicated a verse play Amor Possente , to Don Foresto, the Duke of Este.

The Jews of Venice received an education that was patterned on that of the city's nobility. The children of the wealthy were taught by tutors not only traditional Jewish subjects but also singing, dancing, music, Italian, Latin and poetry. A clear indication of what was considered a well-rounded education at that time is to be found in the proposed curriculum for the ghetto university envisioned by David Provencal. The subjects to be included were Latin, Jewish and non-Jewish philosophy, penmanship, eloquent speaking, literary style, poetry, Latin and Italian composition, arithmetic, geometry, cosmography, astrology and medicine. The university scheme was too ambitious to reach fruition, but academies of music and dancing flourished in the ghetto, and the great stress laid on secular attainment is attested to by as conservative a rabbi as Azariah Figo, who, in the introduction to his Gedole ha-Terumah , proudly lists his educational achievements. Entry into the ghetto schools was free of charge. The number of pupils in each class was carefully controlled, Meals were given to the most needy. The great classics of Italian literature – Dante, Petrarch and Ariosto – received as much attention as the Bible. It was not surprising, therefore, that Simone Luzzatto was a master of literary style, widely read in the classics and familiar with ancient and modern philosophical thought. Jewish and Christian clergymen held debates together and paid each other fulsome compliments, for all the world liked a meeting of the Council of Christians and Jews. Leone of Modena wrote in the preface to his Historia degli Riti Hebraici , that inspiration for his book had been stimulated by the discussions and conversations which he had held all his life with priests and prelates. The respect in which Sirnone Luzzatto was held by Christians was noted by the Prelate Morosini in the Introduction expressly written for Jewish readers to his Via della Fede , where he comments that Luzzatto's knowledge and eloquence caused Hebrew learning to be highly esteemed by Christians. No wonder that, according to Luzzatto, the Venetian people 'was more pleasing and kindly with the Jews than any other in the world' and 'friendly and sociable, liking them greatly'.

Ecumenical curiosity extended to the synagogues where the rabbi, with an hour-glass on the pulpit to warn him of the passage of time, would preach – in Italian, not Hebrew – to a congregation frequently enlarged by the attendance of priests, envoys, patricians, senators, and on one occasion in 1629, the Duke of Orleans, on a state visit from France. The scope of these sermons was remarkable. Aristotle and Virgil were quoted as frequently as the Talmud and Maimonides. The Venetian nobility deemed it 'chic' to attend celebrations in the synagogues, and by way of reciprocity Christian clergymen made complimentary remarks about Judaism in their sermons which were attended by rabbis and lay-people. At the request of a priest of the San Antonio seminary, Leone of Modena prepared a poem in welcome of the Doge, Marino Grimani, which was sung by the priests with orisons. He also wrote a poem commemorating the death of the Pope.

With relationships so cordial on the religious level, it is hardly surprising that social and cultural intercourse was taken for granted. Traditionalists in the community lamented the fact that Jews now went bare-headed, shaved off their beards, ignored the dietary laws and profaned the sabbath for the sake of gentile companionship. Ingenious arguments were put forward to permit travelling in a gondola or riding on horseback on the sabbath day. Jewish youths played tennis on the sabbath and wore swords like any other young blood, while their parents flocked to the Saturday Regattas on the Grand Canal, gambled excessively in gentile company and rode together on journeys without hesitation.

The aura of Jewish wealth and sophistication dazzled simple Thomas Coryat from Somerset in 1608:

I observed some few of these Jews, especially some of the Levantines, to be such goodly and proper men, that I said to myself' our English proverb, 'to look like a Jew' is not true.... For indeed, I noticed some of them to be most elegant and sweetfeatured persons.... I saw many Jewish women whereof some were as beautiful as I ever saw, and so gorgeous in their apparel, jewels, chains of gold, and rings adorned with precious stones that some of our English countesses do scarce exceed them having marvellous long trains like princesses that are borne up by waiting women.

Indeed so vivid was the ostentation of the community that the rabbis enacted a whole series of sumptuary laws which forbade any person to wear brocade or lace of gold, silver or silk, or lace ruffles, with the exception of occasions of domestic rejoicing. No person was permitted to wear more than two rings at a time. The amount a man might spend on his periwig was limited to twelve ducats. A woman could not exceed four ducats for a fan, five for a cuff. Special dispensation was, however, granted on the occasion of masquerades, when like their Christian counterparts, and in defiance of biblical legislation, men dressed up as women and vice-versa. Similar limitations were placed upon the cost and numbers at weddings, bar mitzvahs and circumcisions. On these occasions a maximum of two ducats might be spent on fresh flowers, and a total of twenty guests invited, exclusive of relatives. The derision with which these enactments were received caused the rabbinical authorities to impose a fixed tax of two ducats on circumcision banquets and of five ducats at a wedding, the amount so raised to be used for the relief of the poor.

The crass materialism that he saw around him inspired austere Azariah Figo to one of his finest sermonic fulminations.

Though in exile, we live like royal personages. Our homes are stocked with abundance. We dress in garments of the finest fabric, aping the princes of the land. Our tables are laden with the dainties of Kings, unsurpassed by the sumptuous banquets of Solomon. We live on a scale befitting the heyday of our national life. There is no want that remains unsatisfied.

It could be pointed out, however, that the Jews were not solely obsessed with material possessions, but were also avid theatregoers and concert attenders. Several of them wrote plays. Solomon Usque's drama Esther was regularly revived in the ghetto theatre and invariably watched by a select audience of nobility and gentry. Benedetto Luzzatto wrote a popular pastoral fable in five acts, and the Jewish singer Rachel not only gave concerts in the ghetto musical academy, but also was in great demand at soirees in the houses of the nobility. Venetian lords and ladies deemed it an honour to be invited to the salon of the Jewish poetess, Sarah Coppio Sullam, who held court in the ghetto, and was renowned for her beauty, her wealth and her intelligence. Her gifts and social graces made her a natural leader of ghetto society. Just how thoroughly seventeenth-century ghetto Jews had imbibed upper-class Venetian culture is exemplified by the reproof that Sarah Coppio Sullam delivered to a priest, later a bishop, who slandered her in a pamphlet after having enjoyed her hospitality. In a witty published retort she accused him of bad manners and sentenced him to be disciplined by Galateo, the Republic's leading authority on good taste and manners. It is a moot point whether the Genoese monk, Ansaldo Ceba, who engaged in a four-year correspondence and exchange of gifts with the Venetian poetess, was hoping to convert her or seduce her. Either way, he was unsuccessful, and died a disappointed man. Incidentally, it was among the more mirthful scandals against which the rabbis inveighed that Jewish women in childbirth would call upon the Madonna to help them, just as their menfolk swore freely by the Saviour.

The great days of the Venetian Republic were in the sixteenth century, of its Jewish community in the seventeenth. But in 1735 the Inquisitori sopra gli Ebrei had to confess to the Senate that the Jews under their supervision were insolvent. The community had been bled white. Only 1,500 remained, but still the community had to pay rent on unoccupied houses, and a disproportionate share of taxes. The Jews were forced to keep open their loan banks and to pay the government for the privilege, long after these had ceased to be profitable. They were not permitted to go out of business, just as the Doge was not permitted to refuse his office or resign it. So the community was declared bankrupt, by official state decree. When Napoleon opened the gate of the ghetto in 1797, it was little more than a collection of alms-houses. A Tree of Liberty was erected in the campo, and priests from the neighbouring churches danced and fraternised with the few survivors of Venetian toleration. The Jews were free to move now, but according to Venetian legend they did not have the strength to do so. Hence they are there still.

But the question remains. Why was it that in Venice, of all of Christian Europe, the Jew should, for a few generations, express himself as an almost-free man and be treated almost without prejudice? The answer is, I believe, that the Venetian and the Jew were brothers beneath the skin. In the Middle Ages the Venetians had a reputation for sharp dealing, for sticking together, for artful diplomacy and business 'push' – characteristics familiarly ascribed to the Jews. The Venetian felt himself to be singled out on the one hand for special favours, and on the other to be mocked by fate. Set apart, much-hated, the Venetian merchants shared a strand of the Jewish destiny that was interwoven with their own. The Jew and the Venetian had much in common and recognised each other. It is one of those symbolic coincidences that when the Star of David set in the eighteenth-century ghetto, the Republic of Venice herself was extinguished.

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Rodolfo Buccico is based in Naples, Campania, Italy, and is a Reporter on Allvoices.
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