I recently read Christopher Moore’s new book The Serpent of Venice, which is an unholy marriage between Shakespeare’s Othello and Merchant of Venice, with some of Poe’s “Cask of Amontillado” thrown in. (In other words, a little slice of heaven for literary sleuths who like to identify the characters and lines from their respective sources.) Some of the book’s Jewish characters live on the island of Giudecca, and this is not the first book where I’ve seen people contend that Giudecca was named for its Jewish population. I wondered if this were true and recently came across another book that explores the contention. The answer is not quite clear.
I’ll quote a couple paragraphs from The Venetian Ghetto by Riccardo Calimani, Anna-Vera Sullam, and Davide Calimani, which sums up the complexity:
“Proof of antique Jewish existence can be found in the use of the name Giudecca. In the 18th century, Ludovico Muratori wrote in his Dissertazione that in 1090 the name Giudecca was already in circulation and that this went to prove the presence of Jews on the island, whereas Thomas Temanza discovered an antique map, drawn during the 16th century by a Franciscan, upon which the island of Spinalunga is depicted with the name of Judaica. Others sustain that certain families, having been accused of conspiracy against the Republic and sent in exile to the island of Spinalunga, was proof enough that the term derived from “del giudacato” (“judged”) and that this in Venetian dialect was then transformed in “Zudega” and further on “Judecha,” “Zuecca” and finally “Giudaica.”
“The question, nevertheless, remains unanswered as over and above the opinion of historians, no concrete proof of Jewish presence on the island can be traced prior to the 14th century. Among the copious 14th century documentation that testifies to the presence or passing through of Jews in the lagoon territory, one in particular is the Decree of 1386, with which the Venetian Senate granted the Jews an isolated area of the Lido for the burying of their loved ones. Whilst the year prior, in 1385, an agreement was stipulated between the Senate and certain Jewish lenders in Mestre for the granting of loans to the poorer people of the city” (page 12).
So it sounds like some people have read or heard the name Giudecca and assumed it meant the presence of Jews, but the word doesn’t necessarily translate into that directly, particularly when you consider the Venetian dialect. Also, there’s no actual document that proves that Jews lived on Giudecca, so the supposition is circumstantial. If you’re looking for a clear document, there are a couple unequivocal ones from 1516 relating to the Ghetto. On March 29, 1516, the Doge decreed that Jews must henceforth live within the confines of the New Ghetto (Ghetto Novo). It read in part, “All Jews are to live together in the courtyard houses that are found in the ghetto within the parish of San Gerolamo” (page 12).
By the way, one of the authors of The Venetian Ghetto, Anna-Vera Sullam, shares her surname with Sarra Copia Sulam (sometimes spelled Sullam), a learned Jewish Venetian woman who lived in the Ghetto in the late 16th century. Sarra Copia Sulam is buried in that cemetery on Lido, which is mentioned in the 14th century document.
Any readers out there know of other documentation that should be included in this discussion?