The Ghetto of Venice received much attention in 2016, through a series of events that marked the 500th anniversary of its inception, in 1516.
We’d like to draw attention to a recent book by Reed College Professor Dana E. Katz, which examines the Ghetto from a both a visual and architecture perspective, detailing this “Jewish Space” and its relationship to the rest of the city.
Flora Cassen, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, called it “an original and eye-opening book.” She writes, in a review of the book on H-Judaic:
When the Venetian Senate ordered the creation of a ghetto in 1516, it not only instituted a discriminatory regime of forced residency for Jews but also created a Jewish space in the city. That Jewish space would soon take on characteristic architectural features, becoming a highly visible and easily recognizable neighborhood in the Venetian cityscape. As Dana E. Katz astutely observes, the ghetto should have kept Jews away and out of view, but instead the ghetto area’s architecture brought heightened attention to the presence of Jews in the city. Katz studies the ghetto as a “paradox of urban space,” for “ghetto urbanism, marked by its exaggerated elevations and architectural asymmetries, created a crisis of visuality in that its singularity drew attention from Christians and Jews alike” (p. 2). In this original and beautifully illustrated book, Katz dissects the ghetto’s architecture and visual appearance to understand how space and sight structured Jewish life and Jewish-Christian relations in early modern Venice.
Published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press, the book (which alas, like many academic books is expensive, costing nearly $100) is richly illustrated, and Katz makes use of maps, diagrams, drawings and other visual material as well as other contemporary documentation.
Cassen’s review continues:
Much is known about the history of Jews in the ghetto of Venice. From the religious and economic circumstances that led to the creation of the ghetto, to how Jews dealt with and felt about living in a confined and segregated space, to the continued fluidity of Jewish-Christian relations despite the ghetto walls, to the dynamism of Jewish social and religious life in the ghetto, and even to the food of the ghetto—all of these topics have been the object of detailed studies. However, the spatial and sensory significance of the ghetto has not received as much attention. Using a combination of archival and architectural evidence and drawing on the work of historians and scholars of visual culture, Katz closes that gap and allows her readers to “see Venice with ghetto eyes” (p. 15). Doing so, she not only explores an important, albeit understudied, aspect of ghettoization but also joins a growing number of scholars who have placed spatial, temporal, and sensory questions at the heart of their study of early modern life. After many years in which the study of social and intellectual history was prominent, it seems scholars are again heeding Marc Bloch’s and Lucien Febvre’s call for “une histoire totale,” a history that includes all aspects of past life, including sensorial knowledge such as sight, touch, and smell. Sensorial information may be hard to come by using textual sources, but it is a worthwhile effort as senses are central to one’s life and experiences. Placing the architecture and visuality of the ghetto at the center of her inquiries, Katz participates in this new trend. […]
[The book] explores Jews’ experience of ghettoization in Venice through architecture, sight, and touch. It is not easy to investigate early modern sensorial experiences. Jews did not write how touching the ghetto walls felt, or how much light could nonetheless seep in through closed-up windows, yet Katz, using all the tools available to a twenty-first-century scholar, probes these questions with subtlety and complexity, and, doing so, shines a new light on the realities of ghetto life.