“Monstrosity” in the Ghetto


May 26, 1575: In the Ghetto of Venice was born “two twins joined together where the umbilicus should be, and they lie with their heads at each other’s feet. They have all the proper parts: four legs, four arms, etc., except the privates, and instead of the place whence excrements should issue they have a common hole in their belly which has the form of an umbilicus and serves for excretion.”


I came across this story when reading The Ghetto of Venice by Riccardo Calimani (p. 88-89). The above quote isn’t actually Calimani’s description; it comes from Giovanni Gregorio Cremonese, who wrote an inflammatory piece of propaganda predicting dire consequences due to this birth. He titled it Discourse on the Birth of a Monstrosity to a Jewess in Venice. Of course the birth elicited much interest by Jews and Christians alike. This was a period not far out of the Middle Ages, for heaven’s sake. Calimani points out that not only doctors but also astrologers, fortune tellers, and religious leaders took a keen interest, “a perfect example of the way in which science religion, and myth intermingled at that time,” he writes.

Unfortunately, much of this attention was negative. Cremonese, who wrote the treatise about the “monstrosity,” foretold a grave future for the Venetian Jews. “If these twins live,” he wrote, “it will mean the multiplication of infamous vices, and if they die, vengeance on these scoundrels.” Apparently an early conspiracy theorist, Cremonese thought the birth was due to the Jews’ faith. He believed that the Jews had misinterpreted the prophet Daniel about the coming of a Messiah, and that’s why “these monstrosities came to you.” Referring to the birth, he wrote, “From these accidents we may conjecture infidel conspiracies … or crimes being plotted, the abduction of maidens or the taking of some grand personage into slavery or to death.” Not sure why a birth foretells kidnapping, but there you go. Conspiracy theorists haven’t changed much in hundreds of years and are able to connect things in creative ways.


I can’t help but wonder about the parents of these twins. Did the mother and father see a “monstrosity” that might bring them harm? Rabbi Leone Modena, who lived in the late 1500s to early 1600s wrote that “When one Jew is guilty, all are blamed” (qtd. in Lynn Westwater, The Disquieting Voice 208 n96). Certainly the parents weren’t “guilty” of anything, but that’s not how others saw it. Or did the mother and father just see their newborns, their hopes for an heir, their cooing and playful and needy babies? Were their hearts filled with love, or was that edged out by fear?

Because the babies had no genitals, the parents had been unable to have them circumcised according to Jewish law, and that had brought on another portentous prediction that more trouble was coming for the Jews in the Ghetto. The conjoined twins died, as Calimani writes, “to the probable relief of all, Jews and Christians alike, who longed for a return to normality.”

(Both photos are by me. If you wish to read more, Calimani goes into a bit more detail in his book, The Ghetto of Venice, p. 88-89. I also came across this article on JSTOR by Albert Sapadin: http://www.jstor.org/stable/27943368. The drawing of the conjoined twins is from this site: http://10e.devbio.com/article.php?id=113, which discusses a history of such twins, though it doesn’t mention the Venetian ones, perhaps because they didn’t live past infancy.)




About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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6 Responses to “Monstrosity” in the Ghetto

  1. We recently stayed in the Jewish Ghetto in Venice – it was awe-inspiring! Thanks for enlightening me on this one though – loads I didnt know…

  2. Yvonne says:

    As you say, conspiracy theories have flourished for centuries. And now, thanks to our efficient methods of communication, they spread so quickly.

  3. Nancy Schwalen says:

    What a sad story and what a reminder that prejudice can feed on any little tidbit of misunderstanding.

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