The Jew­ish Ghet­to and the Visu­al Imag­i­na­tion of Ear­ly Mod­ern Venice

Dana E. Katz
  • Review
By – July 31, 2018

Numer­ous stud­ies of the Jew­ish ghet­to in Venice have exam­ined its archi­tec­tur­al form, its place in Venet­ian social and polit­i­cal life, and the dai­ly goings-on with­in its walls. In The Jew­ish Ghet­to and the Visu­al Imag­i­na­tion of Ear­ly Mod­ern Venice, Dana E. Katz demon­strates that the seg­re­ga­tion of Jews, a tac­tic designed to reduce their vis­i­bil­i­ty, in fact made their pres­ence more promi­nent phys­i­cal­ly and sym­bol­i­cal­ly. Vital to the Venet­ian econ­o­my, Jew­ish mer­chants, money­len­ders, and physi­cians were per­mit­ted by the gov­ern­ment to reside in parish­es through­out Venice. In 1516, how­ev­er, the Venet­ian Sen­ate decreed that all Jew­ish res­i­dents move behind the walls of the Ghet­to Nuo­vo in Cannare­gio — a site sur­round­ed by canals in the north­ern reach­es of Venice, and far removed from the city’s eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal cen­ters. Sen­ate leg­is­la­tion fur­ther stip­u­lat­ed that Chris­t­ian guards main­tain con­stant sur­veil­lance inside the ghet­to and along the water, and lock the wall’s gates from sun­set to sunrise.

Draw­ing on the­o­ries of spa­tial and soci­etal prac­tice by Michel Fou­cault, Michel de Certeau, and Hen­ri Lefeb­vre, and on inves­ti­ga­tions into social con­trol and urban space by Mar­vin Tra­cht­en­berg and Ren­zo Dub­boni, Katz exam­ines the impact of this new urban form of sub­ju­ga­tion and ostracism — the first such enclo­sure in Italy — upon both Chris­tians and Jews. Ground­ed in cur­rent visu­al cul­ture the­o­ries, where­in sight and the motion of the eye inform the com­pre­hen­sion of space, Katz sup­ports her analy­sis with archival documents.

Struc­tured the­mat­i­cal­ly in four chap­ters, Katz begins by com­par­ing the Venet­ian ghetto’s periph­er­al loca­tion — a phys­i­cal embod­i­ment of the dias­poric con­di­tion” — with the cen­tral sit­ing of ghet­tos in Flo­rence and Rome. Para­dox­i­cal­ly, as the ghet­to build­ings rose as high as nine sto­ries to accom­mo­date over­crowd­ing, the eth­nic enclo­sure assumed an out­sized promi­nence on the Venet­ian sky­line. As a fur­ther affront to Chris­t­ian observers, the district’s pro­nounced ver­ti­cal­i­ty cre­at­ed an exalt­ed plat­form for Jews to view the city, result­ing in a reci­procity of gazes.” To pre­vent this dis­qui­et­ing ocu­lar con­tact,” in 1560 the Venet­ian Board of Trade required that Jews bar­ri­cade all win­dows, bal­conies, and doors over­look­ing the canals.

Katz next exam­ines the ghetto’s enclo­sure, dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing ghet­toiza­tion from con­vent life. Nuns, she writes, expe­ri­enced a sim­i­lar form of visu­al seg­re­ga­tion in order to nur­ture spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Fol­low­ing the same manda­to­ry opti­cal seclu­sion” imposed on the Jews, author­i­ties seg­re­gat­ed the many oth­er eth­nic groups resid­ing in Venice, includ­ing Turks, Ger­mans, Greeks, Alba­ni­ans, Dal­ma­tians and Arme­ni­ans. Exam­in­ing inter­faith inter­ac­tions from the per­spec­tive of ghet­to win­dows, Katz out­lines how the very act of look­ing out a win­dow was a state-sanc­tioned priv­i­lege denied the Jews in Venice, where only … com­plete fen­es­tral blind­ness could assure social order.” Anoth­er fun­da­men­tal aspect of enforced Jew­ish iso­la­tion was to pre­vent inter­faith touch­ing and sex­u­al rela­tions. Katz argues that, in anoth­er para­dox, the opaque walls pro­voked a tac­tile desire for for­bid­den movement.

Katz does not take us into the ghet­to, but probes its edges, open­ings, and stric­tures with­in the Venet­ian urban envi­ron­ment. While this metic­u­lous­ly researched study is intend­ed for the aca­d­e­m­ic schol­ar, Katz pro­vides intrigu­ing new insights for the schol­ar and lay read­er alike — from analy­sis of Jews’ ten­sions with their Chris­t­ian hosts, to com­par­isons with oth­er Euro­pean ghet­tos and eth­nic restric­tions, offer­ing ways of view­ing ear­ly mod­ern Venice through ghet­to eyes.”

Tama­ra Mor­gen­stern received her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Ange­les and her B.A. from Brown Uni­ver­si­ty. Her areas of inter­est include ear­ly mod­ern archi­tec­ture and urban plan­ning under the Hab­s­burgs in south­ern Italy and Sici­ly, and ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry archi­tec­ture in Los Ange­les and South Flori­da. Tamara’s research on Louis I. Kahn’s unbuilt project for the Hur­va Syn­a­gogue in Jerusalem appears in a recent­ly pub­lished book by Rout­ledge. In addi­tion, she is active in his­toric preser­va­tion, and serves on the Board of the Boca Raton Muse­um of Art, and Stand­With­Us Southeast.

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