This post will explain a few different connections between economic, political, and religious history in Venice, Italy before 1797.
Running Disclaimer: I am not Jewish nor am I an expert of Judaica. I am not Italian nor am I an expert of Italian history…or an expert of anything really. All of my research is based on primary and secondary sources (cited in the papers) and interviews with members of the Jewish community where I currently live. My knowledge is restricted by these factors. While I can verify things people tell me, their experiences, ideas and theories are their own and I have no authority to correct them if they may contradict something I’ve read over the past 5 years. If you read something you think is wrong, please comment below and I will either edit/expand my post or clarify my original point.
Who-What-When-Where-Why…not in that order
-Where: What area are we talking about here? In the contemporary imagination, Venice is a relatively small group of islands off the coast of northeastern Italy where people from all over the world go to marvel at art and architecture. But the Venetian Republic occupied/governed a much larger area back in the day…according to good ol’ Wikipedia and a quick look at a few maps, one can see that Venice governed land in areas that now make up part of Italy, Croatia, Greece, Albania, Cyprus, Montenegro, Slovenia, Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine!
Venice also occupied/governed large swaths of territory on the terra firma (solid land…ya know, not islands)
The contemporary region of Veneto looks like this (SN: In a future post I plan to talk about a current political movement which hopes to reestablish the Venetian Republic…what what?)
-Who: Who are “the Jews of Venice”? Was it just a few rich merchant families? In modern times the Jewish community in America and Israel (maybe elsewhere, but I don’t know) is divided into two groups: the Ashkenazim אַשְׁכְּנַזִּים and the Sephardim סְפָרַדִּים. To be clear, these two larger groups contain countless smaller groups that follow the Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions. In Venice, these two groups were known as Tedeschi and Ponentine, respectively. There was also a third group of Jews in Venice: the Levantines. While Tedeschi is a direct translation of Ashkenazim or Germanic, Ponentine is a particularly Italian classification of Jews from the “west”, specifically Spain and Portugal, who followed the Sephardic tradition. In modern times there are two other large groups: Ethiopian Jews and Mizrahim or Eastern Jews (from what I’ve learned the latter classification is antiquated and can be offensive in certain contexts but also a point of pride in other contexts). Levantine Jews in the Venetian context were Ottoman subjects and would fall within the modern Mizrahim or Eastern group, who follow the Sephardic tradition. So Levantine and Ponentine Jews followed the Sephardic tradition and Tedeschi Jews followed the Ashkenazi tradition. Ashkenazim and Sephardim don’t only denote geographic origin but also describe the specific traditions one follows. The two groups also have unique languages, food, prayers, music, etc. Most Jews in Germany, Poland, and the rest of Eastern Europe follow(ed) Ashkenazi traditions (with particular local adaptations), while Jews from Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean region, the “Middle East”, and Western Asia follow(ed) Sephardic traditions. Russia and its “sphere of influence” is its own animal. Russian Jews from Western Russia follow(ed) mainly Ashkenazi traditions while formerly Persian areas, which came under Russian control in modern times, follow Sephardic traditions. Think Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran (Persian Sephardim have their own unique traditions too), Azerbaijan, etc. To make things even more confusing, there are two other unique traditions: Italian and Romaniote Jews. Italian Jewish tradition, known as Italkim, is different from Ashkenazim and Sephardim. While there may have been a small Italkim and Romaniote Jewish community in Venice (proper and its overseas holdings) which fell under the umbrella of Ponentine or Levantine, there was not a specific classification by the Venetian government for Italkim or Romaniote Jews. I talk more about Ashkenazim and Sephardim in another post, but just wanted to illuminate the fact that “the Jews” is a completely misleading way to identify Jewish people both in the past and now!
So, for the purposes of this post, the Universita degli Hebrei or Jewish community in Venice contained three groups: Tedeschi (including Italkim), Ponentine, and Levantine (including Ponentine-yes, I know it makes no sense) Jews. Jews existed in three communities as well: there were groups of Jews living in Venice proper (the islands where the government was located), on the terra firma in modern day Mestre and the surrounding area, and in Venice’s overseas holdings like Crete and Corfu.
-When: Let’s start with the end of the Republic since that is a definite. Venice was taken by Napoleon Bonaparte on 12 May 1797 and gifted to Austria 5 months later, with the treaty of Campo Formio. Along with the Jewish ghettos, the Venetian Republic ceased to exist. Now, for the beginning. People began populating the islands of current-day Venice in the 400s! Yes, the fifth freakin’ century! The city itself was established on 25 March 421. Venice fell under the control of the Byzantine Empire until 751. Although the first Doge was elected in 726. These elections (as tenuous as they may have been) ceased and the Great Council closed in 1297, which officially created the exclusive oligarchy which would rule Venice until the end. Families who were part of the Venetian political scene from the 700s would still have members in the government in 1797! I obviously cannot write about or even summarize the history of Jews in Venice between 421 and 1797, but I will explain how the community helped the Republic maintain its power up to its last days.
Like many historical events, the establishment of the Jewish community in Venice is a hard one to nail down. What makes a “Jewish community”? Would one Jewish merchant be enough? 5? 10? The establishment of a synagogue? The first document (that I know of) placing a Jewish community under the control of the Venetian government is a petition from the Jewish community of Crete to the Doge in 1314. While this may be the first document directly addressing Jews, I am quite sure there was a Jewish presence in Venice several decades if not centuries before. There is a disputed census from 1152 which records the presence of a Jewish community and the Venetian government outlawed money lending in the islands in 1254 which forced Jews and Christians to lend on the mainland (don’t worry, this changed and Jews were exclusively contracted to lend money in Venice beginning in the 1300s). The Venetian government invited money lenders, specifically Tedeschi Jews, to come to Venice between 1366 and 1373. With the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492/95, a new wave of Jewish migrants came to the islands as well. The Venetian government didn’t officially invite/allow Ponentine Jews to settle until the end of the 16th century, but Ponentine Jews entered Venice from the east as Levantines (remember, they were both Sephardic) during this 100-year gap and afterward. Cecil Roth, a scholar of Venetian history places the Jewish community in Venice sometime in the 12th century and a new exhibit at the Met explains that at least 3 ships a year were sailing between Venice and Jerusalem by the 13th century (I’m in the middle of researching these ships and will check back in when I get some info). Contracts between the Venetian government and Jewish communities living in the islands and on the terra firma abound from the middle of the 1300s, so that’s what I’m going with. There are still 500 Jews living in Venice today, so the story isn’t over!
-What: So what actually went down between Jews in Venice, non-Jewish citizens, and the government? Long story short the Jewish communities in Venice had a HUGE role in the Venetian economy and lent money to poor citizens, rich citizens, and the Venetian GOVERNMENT (yes, the Jewish community in Venice lent money to the state for interest-think government bonds!) up until the final days of the Republic. First, let’s address moneylending. This money lending was more closely related to pawn brokering (the Jewish community also cornered the market on the sale of secondhand goods-no doubt pledges that lenders weren’t able to buy back) although Jewish moneylenders did lend on written agreements at a higher percentage of interest. Tedeschi and Italkim Jews lent money in Mestre and Venice. See, most of the rest of Italy used a poor-relief system operated by the Catholic Church called the Monte di Pieta, but Venice received “permission” (I use quotes because Venice had a strained relationships with the Church on many occasions) via a papal legate from 1463 to contract money lending to the Jews and later the Monte di Pieta was outlawed completely! Initially, the Jewish money lenders were only lending to wealthy Venetians as to ensure they would receive the highest interest rate, but it was put into law that the Jews had to accept pledges from poor clients and lend small sums. This allowed the Venetian government to control poor-relief or “welfare” without giving up any power to the Church but also, the state itself wasn’t responsible. Genius move! SN: These contracts were extensive AF and the last one from 1786 had 96 clauses–including who Jews could have sex with, where they could work, when they could come and go from the ghettos, what they could wear, tax rates, etc.
So, were the Jewish moneylenders in Venice only responsible for poor-relief? NO way! They also sold secondhand goods. There were strict rules about this though because, ya see, Venice was a “union” city and guilds ruled the roost. First and foremost in order to have a legitimated government “the man” has to placate its citizens in order that they will allow themselves to be governed. There are many ways of doing this (like bread and circuses, yo) and one way the Venetian government did it was through extensive contracts and negotiations with guilds! There were guilds for salt and leather and sewing and building and shipping and everything else you can think of. Unique contracts with each guild outlined what they could do and provided protections for their industries. Anyway, people in Venice were very poor, even nobles, except a few (like, really, a few)
As a result of these guild rules, Jews in Venice weren’t allowed to trade overseas as Venetian merchants until 1589. Venetian shipping suffered immensely with the discovery of America and a shipping route around the horn of Africa so the government pulled out all the stops and opened up the profession to Jews. A large number of Jews visited Venice regularly as Ottoman subjects/merchants and were governed in this capacity before 1589. Jewish merchants were also allowed to trade with other Italian cities so they did have a role in the Venetian merchant economy, as long as it didn’t conflict with the native-patriciate nobility and their merchant activities.
Don’t get it twisted, for quite some time, the state used “forced loans” from the Jews and wealthy nobles to stay afloat. See, a bunch of rich Venetian families decided shipping and receiving was a trashy way to make money and they thought feudalism was cool…a few hundred years after feudalism was found to be a no-go on the continent. So a huge chunk of the nobility-when they weren’t creating unprofitable farms on the terra firma-worked for the government in order to get a pension from the state.
When the Great Council closed in 1297 lineage was the only thing that validated one’s position in government. This meant many families, despite their net worth, were allowed to hold political office. The lower class nobles, aka barnabotti, were dependent on the Jewish lenders, the government, and wealthier nobles. As early as 1490 a MAJORITY of the noble class in Venice was dependent on the state for subsistence!
This is a good book if you want to know more:
Also, guess what? These contracts encouraged conversos to go back Judaism in order to enjoy the benefits of the contracts. The contract for merchants allowed Jewish traders to pay the same customs rates as native Venetian merchants, whereas conversos wouldn’t be allowed to be merchants at all!
Parts of these contracts also included the ghettoization of the Jews. Jewish Venetians had to live within the ghettos established by the state. There were warehouses for their goods, stores, schools, synagogues, and other institutions for the exclusive use of Jews. There were three ghettos in Venice, the first of which was mandated in 1516 for the Tedeschi Jews and visiting Levantines…prior to this, Jewish moneylenders and merchants were allowed to live wherever they could find a space to rent. From 1516 to 1797 the Jews were required to reside only in the ghettos. A specific ghetto was created in 1541 for the Levantines and in 1633 for Ponentines. One of the most interesting parts of all of this is the intricate system of self-government the Jewish community in Venice organized. I am not an expert and I can’t summarize here, but in short, there were groups or Scuole for each tradition and they composed a sort of Jewish congress (with the permission and encouragement of the Venetian state) which exacted taxes from the community and negotiated with the state on its behalf.
As I mentioned before I am fascinated by separatism and self-determination and one interesting adaptation of this occurred in the Jewish communities of Venice. The Tedeschi, Ponentine, and Levantine Jews created an intricate system of self-government in Venice. It was a state within a state where individuals represented themselves and members of their particular group. This obviously completely flips the idea that the Venetian state was a harsh oligarchy where people had no authority over their lives. Of course, the state held power over the Jewish community and I am not saying they had some sort of absolute agency over their position in Venetian society, but organs of self-government served a valuable purpose and were not just for show! Check out this book: A Separate Republic: The Mechanics and Dynamics of Venetian Jewish Self-Government, 1607-1674
The last encounter between the Universita degli Hebrei and the Venetian government came in the form of a gift of silver in 1796 in an attempt to help stave off French forces. It didn’t work and Venice crashed and burned and the Jews were subsequently “liberated” by the provisional democratic government.
Just to summarize, the Jewish community in Venice monopolized poor-relief in the city, aided the noble class by providing loans to poor noble families, loaned money to the state for little to no interest (hey, like those negative rate bonds people have now!), and served as merchants in trade between Venice and the East…all through specific contracts negotiated by the governing bodies of their communities and the state of Venice!
-Why: Why does this matter at all in 2016? Well, if you hadn’t noticed tensions are quite high between people of different races, religions, and nationalities across the United States and Europe. Somehow Venice was able to navigate social, political, economic, and technological changes for over A THOUSAND YEARS while maintaining relationships with various empires and religious groups to the benefit of the Republic. Granted, there was no internet, modern warfare, or World Bank to muddy the waters and obviously ghettoizing+legislating people’s personal lives is not a modern solution to today’s issues, but surveying Venetian political history can provide a new way to analyze the relationship between the state and minority communities. The “Politics of Difference” as explained in Jane Burbank and Frederic Cooper’s work Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference
is a challenge faced by every empire and now, nation-states. Using local agents (in this case the Universita degli Hebrei) as mediators between communities and the government is one strategy that worked in several imperial contexts, including Venice. Also, while the Jewish community was in no way a monolithic group, their tradition of self-governance in Venice allowed the individual Jewish groups (Tedeschi, Ponentine, and Levantine) as well as the community as a whole to negotiate with the Venetian government much to their benefit. As we read above, the Venetian government extended contracts to the various Jewish communities to both help regulate and encourage their role in the economy. They also used Jewish merchants as middlemen between empires-most notably the Ottoman Empire and as middlemen domestically in aiding the urban poor. Unique geographic, cultural, religious, and political circumstances helped Venice survive for so long, but that doesn’t mean it’s political history cannot be adapted to contemporary political challenges. History could teach our leaders a thing or two about interacting with, meeting the needs of, and validating the role of marginalized communities.
**Let me repeat this again just in case anyone misunderstood: Venice was by no means perfect and I am under no illusion that Medieval and Renaissance governance of minority communities was a fun and happy space to occupy. Obviously, governing where people can go and who they bump uglies with and how they can dress is ridiculous. This is only meant to show that past city-states/empires/Republics/oligarchies were diverse institutions able to navigate a relationship with minority communities which promoted the prosperity and inclusion of those communities (while simultaneously using them for the benefit of the state), at least in part.**
I’m not entirely sure, but I think the next installment will be about some Fascists that were murdered in the Bronx which will include Clarence Darrow! Come back!