Although Shakespeare never mentions this place in The Merchant of Venice, historically speaking this would have been the only area where a 16th-century Jew would have been allowed to live in Venice. And when he decided to update the story of the Jewish moneylender written by Ser Giovanni Fiorentino two centuries earlier, Shakespeare had no hesitation in moving it from its original location in Mestre to Venice, where the Ghetto was established in 1516, soon becoming one of the most famous Jewish centres in Europe. This peripheral, churchless square was originally the “Public Copper Foundry” (Geto del rame del nostro Comun) for the manufacture of cannon. It is not clear whether it was the early German foundry workers or the incoming German Jews who, by gutturalizing the initial “G”, turned the Getto [pronounced Jetto] into the Ghetto. What is certain is that the name soon became synonymous with Jewish quarter, and later, by extension of ethnic enclave. Venice decided to confine the Jews here securing their services but keeping them safely at the margins of the city, the traditional receptacle of all evil and perversity (like theatres and brothels). Constrained within the narrow limits of an island, surrounded by water, multiethnic and multilingual thanks to the five ethnic groups of Jews who had arrived in different waves from Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal and the Ottoman Empire, the Ghetto became at once a place of segregation and a safe haven for refugees, possibly the best compromise for that time. Despite the strict regulations which forbade Jews to leave the area from sunset to sunrise and prescribed the wearing of a yellow badge during daylight excursions, the Ghetto saw considerable incoming and outgoing traffic and became a vivacious social and cultural melting pot.
To which place of worship would Shylock have been referring when he arranges with Tubal to meet “at our synagogue”? The five main synagogues in the Ghetto were established in rapid succession to serve the various “nations” comprising the Jewish community there. Since only German Jews were allowed to lend money, Shylock would have attended the oldest of the synagogues, the Scuola Grande Tedesca, the German synagogue where the Ashkenazi rite was practiced.
In this beatifully decorated edifice, many decorative elements resemble the styles and materials found in churches because the synagogues were actually built and decorated by Christian craftsmen. If you are a movie fan, on the other hand, you may want to visit the Levantine synagogue, where Al Pacino/Shylock prays in the first scene of Michael Radford’s Hollywood version of the play.
So even if don’t make it today for the festival, you can always visit the synagogues starting from the Jewish museum [http://www.museoebraico.it/english/home.asp] any time during the year. And if you are into long-term planning, remember that 2016 is both the quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s death and the quincentenary of the Ghetto. Wouldn’t that be the perfect year for a major staging of The Merchant of Venice in the very place where it all began? Any thoughts about that?