Tear Down the Gates!

Many of my followers know the map of Venice, her winding streets and watery ways, better than I do. You can look at a photo and name the location, or hear a bridge name and tell me where it is. But do you know where in Venice is the Contrada dell’Unione?

“Thanks be given to the immortal Bonaparte who has broken the bonds of Italian servitude. Thanks to the unvanquished Italian Army, which has blazed our path to freedom. … Thanks to the fervent Municipalists, who have destroyed the sign of that most unjust division, by having those infamous Gates, Trophies of ignorance, torn down” (p. 254, Calimani’s The Ghetto of Venice).


When the city removed the Ghetto gates and declared equal freedom and treatment for the Jewish citizens, some felt that the Ghetto should be renamed to honor that change. Samuele Romanin said, “One sign of progress was the recognition of the Jews as the equals of other citizens. Not only did three of them sit among ex-noblemen and churchmen in the municipal government, but on July 11 the ghetto gates were torn down, and that name, a reminder of barbarous times, was abolished and replaced by that of Contrada dell’Unione.”


Another name was also proposed: Contrada dell’Reunione, offered by Pier Gian Marie de Ferrari (252). Here is a portion of his account of the day the gates came down: “Later there were several popular addresses worthy of mention…. Meanwhile the Ghetto Gates were borne in triumph by the crowd of People that had rushed up to the Gates to snatch them from the Citizens and the ordained Workmen, and were broken into pieces in the New Ghetto Square before the National Guard, where in the sight of all, and with exultant cries of joy, they were consigned to the flames, which rapidly consumed them. Then it was moved by Citizens Goldoni and Momolo Grego, suggested by their patriotic sentiment, that a Liberty Tree would be appropriate in that Square, and no sooner did the idea catch on, than all impatiently responded by searching for the object. The National Guard went off and, entering a nearby Garden, in a moment cut down a Tree which was carried in triumph with Patriotic Hymns to the middle of the aforesaid Square, where it was set up, and a virtuous Citizeness sacrificed the adornment of her National Cap from her Head to crown the Liberty Tree. The Patriotic Dances were repeated, with democratic disposition” (251-52).  (Sorry for the long quotes, but their words capture it better than I can recreate it!)

Gheto Nuovo 3

Venice’s ghetto was the first such-named enclave in the world, the word being taken from “gettare,” to forge iron, because the neighborhood used to house the city’s iron foundries. We’re coming up on the 500th anniversary of Venice’s ghetto in just a couple months, so this seems like a good time to share some tidbits of its history. Who knew that it wasn’t always called the Ghetto? Alas, the name didn’t stick, and despite these Patriotic Dances, the virtuous Citizeness, and all the running around in triumph, the original term of ghetto was returned quickly to the neighborhood.

Gheto Nuovo 2

(The photos are mine, but the map of the Ghetto gates comes from here: https://depts.washington.edu/hrome/Authors/kayanna/JewishGhettoandtheSynagogue/pub_zbarticle_view_printable.html) Calimani’s book is the best source I’ve found for a comprehensive history of the Ghetto.



About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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7 Responses to Tear Down the Gates!

  1. Bert says:

    In what year were the events of July 11, please?

  2. Nancy Schwalen says:

    Fascinating story. I think I’d like read Calimani’s book.

  3. peter maher says:

    There are errors in the following: “Venice’s ghetto was the first such-named enclave in the world, the word being taken from “gettare,” to forge iron, because the neighborhood used to house the city’s iron foundries.” There were ethnic precincts or enclaves all over the world ages before1516. The foundry was located on what is now Calle (narrow street) Ghetto Vecchio, in Venet language “Gheto vecio”. The street has that name long before any foundry was built there. The metal was not iron, but bronze, in medieval Latin “es”, classical Latin AES. Bronze cannon were preferred; iron gun barrels were prone to shattering, given the impurities of iron in those days and were more dangerous to the gunner than to the target. Evidence for foundries working on the Venetian island named “Geto” dates from 1306 (Toaff 1965:71-72). The text cited for the foundry etymology says of Geto: They made siege guns there. The text does not say the place is called thus and so because it was a foundry, but that the place called X – Geto – was the location of the foundry. Ghetto Nuovo never had a foundry. Modern standard Italian gettare means ‘to cast’, whether casting metal, casting a glance, a ball or so on. It is a borrowing from French : jeter is also the source of English jet. The modern Italian practice of writing GH before I and E to indicate the “hard G” and G before I and E for the “soft G” was unknown in the 1500s. You had to know the language in order to read the letters right. Compare English FORGE (hard G) and FORGET (soft G). The real Venetian for ‘casting’ is not GETO, but ZETO (~ XETO). Read the X and Z like the English. The foundry myth was rejected by Klatzkin (1932); it was demolished even earlier, in 1904, by Emilio Teza (1904). (Google these.) A good dictionary is Venetian-English English-Venetian: When in Venice do as the Venetians (Feb 27, 2007) by Lodovico Pizzati. He has urged me to publish my studies.

    • You should publish! I relied on the works that are available, so if my information is erroneous, I’m sorry that I only had those sources to rely on. Clearly, I should have dug deeper to find the things you did. Thank you for sharing them.

  4. peter maher says:

    I need a publisher. Any suggestions? Print on Demand would be good. Who needs a garage full of printed books?

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