I’ve been reading a lot lately about Venice’s ghetto, and I thought I’d share some interesting details. One item I came across is the strazzaria. This refers to second-hand clothing, and also the shop where it was sold. The Venetian government severely limited what jobs the Jews could have; they were allowed to be money lenders, insurers, doctors, and merchants of some items (though they couldn’t produce them). You’ll sometimes see the word strazzaria as a street name, indicating that a pawnshop was there.
Here’s a picture I took in the Museo Ebraico in Venice, showing where the pawnshops were located in the eighteenth century:
Some strazzaria owners tried to circumvent the severe restrictions. From the book The Ghetto of Venice by Riccardo Calimani, I found this:
“Galliccioli writes: ‘And yet the Jews sometimes ingeniously succeeded in eluding that law too [the law forbidding them to sell new items]. For while actually selling new suits and garments of their own making, in some invisible place they made a tiny spot or other flaw and, having charged the customer for a new garment, they pocketed the money and then told him that in a certain place there was a spot, and in this way they pretended to be able to say that the garment was used if any complaint reached the Magistrates'” (27). Calimani points out that this was a survival tactic in a city that charged its Jewish population an enormous tax for the privilege of living there, plus made them pay for the Christian guards that locked them in at night.
Giacomo Casanova also mentions the Jewish pawnshops in his memoirs, though his experience comes from two hundred years later. Casanova had fallen in love with Caterina Capretta, a young daughter of a merchant who, when he discovered his daughter was being wooed by Casanova, packed her off to a convent on Murano. Unfortunately, the girl was already pregnant with Casanova’s child. The two lovers had found a go-between named Laura who could deliver messages to Caterina in the convent.
One day, Laura rushed to Casanova with the message that Caterina was hemorrhaging due to a miscarriage. Terrified, Casanova rushed to the ghetto to purchase linens to send to Caterina to staunch the blood flow. He wrote in his memoir, “I am scarcely dressed before I have another oar put to my gondola, and I go with Laura to the Ghetto, where I buy a Jew’s whole stock of sheets and more than two hundred napkins, and after putting them in a bag I go to Murano with her” (Vol. 4, p. 5). Laura later described the scene to Casanova and snuck out the bloodied linens. “When I saw the linen which she took out from under her skirt I very nearly dropped dead,” he declared. “It was sheer butchery.” Happily, Caterina survived, and amazingly she kept the secret of her “illness” from ruining her reputation. Casanova was so grateful that he gifted the linens, which were worth a small fortune, to Laura, who faithfully continued to serve Casanova.
Casanova resorted to the pawnshops later in life. He would sometimes pawn his clothing and books to obtain ready cash. In once instance, while he was out of town, his girlfriend Francesca Buschini couldn’t pay the rent and sold some of Casanova’s things at a pawnshop in the ghetto. She wrote to him, “Without you, my dear friend, we would never have known how to pay it” (quoted in Guy Endore’s biography Casanova, p. 312). Casanova never forgave her. His beloved books! His gun! His satin suit and velvet pants! Even the bed sheets!
Addendum: One of my readers emailed to say that he couldn’t find any listing in Venice for a street named Strazzaria. Giuseppe Tassini mentions it in Curiosita Veneziane, and Paolo Giordani, who uses Tassini as a prime source for his guidebook Venice, expands on the entry. The street Cale del Strazzariol is behind the church of San Zulian, not too far from Piazza San Marco. Giordani writes, “The guild of the strazzeri (rag merchants) was established in 1419 and then re-organized in 1584, because of the intrusion of outsiders. …This kind of trading could only be carried out by ‘master’ merchants with an official license attesting that they had paid the appropriate duties. …members of the guild gathered in the church of San Zulian at the altar of San Giacomo” (179-180). There were separate laws regulating Jewish merchants overall, though I’m guessing there was some overlap in the laws regulating the used clothing merchants.