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Venice has been construed as a great ship upon the sea. Sometimes, among the restless motion of the waters, there is a sensation that the ground of Venice is also in motion like the deck of a ship. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his Journal, of his stay in Venice, that “it is as if you were always at sea.”

The image of the ship of state is a familiar one, but it has a particular pertinence in the case of a city that seems almost to float. When a doge of the early fifteenth century, Francesco Foscari, spoke of guiding the republic he reverted instinctively to the language of the sea. He discoursed upon sails and upon cordage, upon the wind and current, with all the experience of a practised sailor. It was a language that the Venetians intimately understood. The analogy was made, for example, between the building of the city and the building of a ship. When a ship was constructed, with keel and ribs of wood, it was not easy to say when the form first emerged; in similar manner, it was not easy to specify the origins of Venice.

The tip of the Dogana, or custom house, sitting on the edge of land that leads to the Grand Canal, has often been compared to the prow of a ship. On the church of S. Maria Salute, immediately behind the Dogana, a statue of the Virgin has been clothed in the uniform of a capitano da mar or admiral of the Venetian fleet. Venetian buildings have often been compared with ships, with their cylindrical forms and rectangles, ships turned into stone and permanently moored. The wooden roofs of some Venetian churches have been erected in forma di galea or as a “ship bottom roof.” The circular apertures, everywhere in Venice, are like portholes.

Yet the most important allusion can be saved to the last. The ship was once, for the early settlers, a place of refuge. The ship of Venice was, from the beginning, a haven for exiles and wanderers. It was an open city, readily assimilating all those who came within its borders. One fifteenth-century traveller noted of Venice that “most of the people are foreigners,” and in the following century a Venetian recorded that apart from the patricians and the citizens “all the rest are foreigners and very few are Venetians.” He was referring principally to the shopkeepers and artisans. In 1611 an English diplomat, Sir Dudley Carleton, described Venice as a “microcosmos rather than city.” It was created in the fashion of orbis rather than of urbis. And so it has remained for the rest of its history.

There were French and Slav, Greek and Fleming, Jew and German, Oriental and Spaniard, as well as assorted citizens from the mainland of Italy. Certain streets were named after them. All the countries of Europe and of the Levant were represented. It was something that all travellers noted, as if quite suddenly they had come upon the Tower of Babel in Saint Mark’s Square. No other port in the world held so many strange peoples. In many nineteenth-century paintings the gabardine of the Jewish merchants, the scarlet caps of the Greeks, and the turbans and robes of the Turks are seen jostling among the more severe costumes and top-hats of the Venetian gentlemen. It might be said that the Venetians fashioned their own identity in perpetual contrast to those whom they protected.

The Germans were granted their own “miniature Germany” in a complex known as the Fondaco dei Tedeschi at Rialto which contained two halls, for dining, and eighty separate rooms. The merchants were supervised and monitored by the government, but it was said that “they love the city of Venice more than their native land.” In the sixteenth century the Flemish settled in large numbers. The Greeks had their own quarter, with their own church dedicated to the Orthodox faith. After the fall of Constantinople in 1204, and the abandonment of that city to the Turks in 1453, there was a further flow of Byzantine Greeks—among them soldiers, mariners, artists and intellectuals looking for patrons. The Armenians and the Albanians had their own districts. Eventually an Armenian monastery was established on the island of S. Lazzaro, where Byron travelled to learn the Armenian language as a way of exercising his mind among the more sensual pleasures of Venice. There was a colony of Turkish merchants, established as the Fondaco dei Turchi, where a school for the teaching of Arabic was maintained. So Venice was the setting for a thriving cosmopolitan life. It was not altruism or generosity that occasioned this inviting embrace. Venice could not have survived without its immigrants. Some of them were raised to the rank of citizens; some of them intermarried with the indigenous people.

They were not all, of course, well protected. Many thousands of poor immigrants were cramped into cheap housing, sharing the corners of rooms with others of the same race or nationality. Many of them came as refugees from Balkan wars, or from impossible poverty; some of them were escaping from plague. They congregated in the poorer parishes and by the sixteenth century, as a result of the influx, Venice had become the most densely populated city in Italy. The immigrants also provided cheap labour for the city, and were even employed in the galleys of the Venetian warships. They did the work that the Venetians themselves preferred to avoid.

In the fourteenth century the Italian poet, Petrarch, celebrated Venice as the “sole shelter in our days of liberty, justice, and peace, the sole refuge of the good.” As a port, the city attracted such epithets as “shelter” and “refuge.” They were natural images. Pietro Aretino, himself an exile from Rome who had found safe haven in Venice, put it another way. In an address to the doge in 1527 he declared that “Venice embraces those whom all others shun. She raises those whom others lower. She affords a welcome to those who are persecuted elsewhere.” There were, after all, refugees who travelled to Venice for reasons other than commercial. There was a toleration in this open city that was unknown in other regions. That is why it became, from the eighteenth century forward, a resting place for what Henry James called “the deposed, the defeated, the disenchanted, the wounded, or even only the bored.” The deposed were a particular speciality of Venice. Many of the dethroned princes of Europe made their way here. At one time in 1737 there were five dispossessed monarchs living in the city, one of them being the young Charles Edward Stuart.

It was also a haven for those of broken spirit, for wanderers, and for exiles. Venice became the home of the dispossessed and the deracinated. Its watery and melancholy nature suited those who were acquainted with sorrow. It became a haven for those who were uncertain of their origin or of their true identity and for those, perhaps, who might have wished to escape from them. It was like a mother, endlessly accessible and accommodating. It was a womb of safety. The people were known for their placability and civility. Venice was a city of transit, where you might easily be lost among the press, a city on the frontier between different worlds, where those who did not “fit in” to their native habitat were graciously accepted. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, it became attractive to male homosexuals who were lured by the opportunities for boys and gondoliers. There came here, too, swindlers and fraudsters of every description; there were failed financiers and statesmen, shamed women and soldiers of fortune, alchemists and quacks. The rootless were attracted to the city without roots.

Venice was also a frontier between different faiths, Catholic and Orthodox, Islam and Christianity. So it attracted religious reformers of every description. A secret synod of Anabaptists was established here in the middle of the sixteenth century, and the German community harboured many Lutherans among its number. Venice always kept its distance from Rome, and protected the independence of its Church from the depredations of the pope; so it became, in theory, an arena for religious renovation. There was even a time when the English government believed the republic to be ready to join forces with the Reformation. In that, of course, it proved to be wholly mistaken.

If you had failed, then Venice was a good place to forget your failure. Here you were in a literal sense insulated from the outer world, so that its scorn or simple inattention could no longer wound you. Venice represented an escape from modernity in all of its forms. And, like any port, it offered anonymity. If you were an exile in Venice you could lose your identity; or, rather, you could acquire another identity entirely in relation to the floating city. You, too, could become fluid and elusive. Tell me who I am. But not who I was. That still holds true.

For a place that afforded refuge for the foreign or the dispossessed, it is perhaps ironic that Venice gave the world the name of the ghetto. A ghetto, a small and insular community, seems naturally to arise from Venetian circumstance; indeed the Venetian ghetto became a Venice in miniature, and will thus help us to understand the nature of the city itself.

There had been Jews in the city from the twelfth century, at the very latest, and in 1152 a population of thirteen hundred is recorded. They were not permitted to live in Venice itself, but were settled upon the adjacent island of Spinalunga; its name was changed later to Giudecca. Two centuries later they were given permission to reside in the city. A burial ground was prepared for them in the sand of the Lido, with a palisade to protect the Jewish dead from the “enormities” of the Venetians. But the Jews were always subject to the prejudice and hysteria of the larger population, prompted by superstition or greed to strip them of their wealth. They were forbidden all professions except that of medicine, and were denied all trades except that of moneylending; then they were reviled for the very business they were obliged to take up.

By the early sixteenth century their dwellings were scattered over the city; a series of military defeats in the same period, in battles with some of the Italian cities of the mainland, were believed to spring in part from the Venetian tolerance of the Christ-killers in their midst. God’s wrath was directed against His chosen city, exacerbating the anxiety that the Venetians always seemed to feel. So, on 29 March 1516, the Jews were enclosed in the first ghetto. It was located on the edge of the northern district known as Cannaregio, some distance from the sacred places of the city. It seems to have taken its name from the previous use of this remote enclave as a foundry for cannon; the word for the casting of metal was gettare. The noun for the cast is getto. Two other adjacent neighbourhoods were eventually added to its domain. It was a complex of ghettoes.

It was not an altogether novel development. The German merchants had already been consigned to their own quarters, where they could be supervised and taxed without difficulty. The Turks would soon follow. The policy of separation and enclosure had, in addition, previously been tested in the Venetian colonies of the Mediterranean. The administration of Venice was a pragmatic business. But of course that pragmatism, under other skies and in other cultures, could become brutal and murderous. The Venetians had always been preoccupied by the definition and creation of space. What could be more natural, therefore, than their invention of the ghetto? It was not, however, the most benign concept. The sacred state had, in certain respects, become a rationalised state. The combination elsewhere might prove fatal.

But the Venetian ghetto had certain special and defining features. It was, or it became, poor and overcrowded. It was surrounded by a wall, a small island with one bridge connecting it to the rest of Venice. The inhabitants of the ghetto were allowed to leave when the marangona bell in the campanile of Saint Mark’s rang at daybreak, but they were obliged to return by sunset. At that time, the drawbridge was raised. The Jews were locked in for the night. Space was so limited, and the influx of residents so large, that buildings grew higher and higher to eight or nine storeys. The buildings were divided into a number of apartments, with four or five families residing in each of them. It is reported that some people had to sleep at separate times of the day or night, since there was too little floor space. Rilke recites a story of one block in the ghetto that rose and rose ever higher until its inhabitants could finally glimpse the sea. That is a significant Venetian fable.

Yet in truth all the windows looked inwards, to the central campo or courtyard. There was to be no visual contact between Jews and Christians. It was deemed inadvisable, for example, that the Jews should be allowed to see the sacrament as it was paraded through the adjacent Christian streets. Such was the measure of the latent Venetian anxiety. So, from the outside, the unusually tall edifices were bare cliffs of stone. Guards were posted at the gates of the bridge by night and by day. The adjacent quays were walled in. Two boats were employed to patrol the immediate area. The ghetto resembled a fortress or a prison. The city itself had become a kind of prison for some of its inhabitants. The Jews were obliged to wear a sign of their race. It was at first a circle of yellow cloth, the size of a fourpenny loaf, stitched onto the breast of an outer garment; then it became a yellow hat; then a red one. Sexual congress between the two communities was forbidden. Any Jewish male discovered in flagrante with a Christian female was punished with the removal of his testicles.

By the end of the sixteenth century there were complaints that the ghetto had “become by day and night a den of thieves and harlots, troubled by rows, clashes of weapons, and threats.” But in the sixteenth century this might have been the definition of any city. Three hundred years later the French writer, Théophile Gautier, condemned it as a “fetid and purulent district.” But this was a period when much of Venice might have answered to that description. The ghetto reflected the nature of the larger city but, in this microcosm within a microcosm, it did so in an intense and garish way.

There were gambling dens in the ghetto, as there were in the larger city, where large sums were won or lost. The ghetto harboured a community of as many tongues and accents—Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, Italian, German, Levantine—as the city itself. The ghetto was closely organised and controlled by the Jewish leaders, imitating the example of the Venetian patricians. On the feast of Purim the Jews put on masks and disguises in true Venetian fashion. It became known as the “Jewish Carnival.” The inhabitants of the ghetto excelled in music and in singing, as did the Venetians themselves. By the early seventeenth century there was even a musical academy within the walls. The Jews put on elaborate theatrical performances. Many Jewish women dressed themselves in the latest fashion, with velvet and plush, velveteen and lace. They had been thoroughly Venetianised, in other words, to the extent that the stricter rabbis would condemn their general dissipation and sensuality. The ghetto had become another Venice.

This was one of the secrets of the city. It reproduced itself effortlessly in all of its various districts and institutions; its nature and its structure were endlessly imitated in a perhaps unwitting act of homage. Every community within Venice, whether a trade guild or a manufactory, became a miniature republic. The image of the city was so powerful that it became a paradigm, drawing everything towards itself. A thousand cities of Venice comprised the city, just as a thousand flames may make up one fire.

The ghetto was not despised by the Jews themselves. It became a home, a haven, just as Venice itself had once been to the first settlers. It became a resting place. The Jews of Spain and Portugal, for example, were happy to find refuge there. It became a centre of Hebrew studies, and the principal site of Hebrew publishing in Europe. It was a fixed point of rabbinic culture. Despite its somewhat noisome reputation it remained for some Jews a central place of prayer and spirituality, reflecting the sacred destiny of Venice itself. It also offered a welcome defence, on a practical level, against outbreaks of anti-Semitism among the populace.

Jews and Christians would mingle in the ghetto during the day, and in fact the ghetto exercised a peculiar fascination for some members of Venetian society. The government of Venice tried to prevent its citizens from attending the Purim plays, for example, but in the face of mounting protest gave up the attempt. There was simply too much enthusiasm. Certain Venetians would also regularly attend the synagogues, when a renowned or gifted speaker was about to deliver the sermon. In turn rabbis would listen to the sermons in Venetian churches. There may in fact have existed an affinity deeper than either the Jews or Venetians would care to confess. There were many similarities. Both people were intent upon custom and ceremony; the Venetian patricians were often described as “grave” and “dignified,” in a fashion similar to Jewish elders. And the mercantile Venetians, like the Jews, were subject to vulgar prejudice. Other countries accused them of “insatiable cupidity” and of “conspiring the ruin of everyone.” The rest of the world believed that Venice was extraordinarily wealthy, even though it took great pains to conceal its wealth. Similar charges had been levelled at the Jews in all ages. There was a fellow feeling. They were both hated.

So in Venice the Jews were tolerated in a manner not evident in other European cities. There is no example of popular execration or maltreatment, although it was reported that Venetian drunks or Venetian children would sometimes dance in the Jewish graveyard on the Lido. The Jews were tolerated, perhaps, because they were profitable. You can never ignore the principle of commercial calculation running through all of Venice’s affairs. Jews were allowed to open business premises only on the payment of large fees. The trade that Jewish merchants and shopkeepers brought to Venice was of immense service to the Venetians themselves. The relatives of the Venetian Jews often sent their capital to the city. At times of crisis, not infrequent, heavy taxes were levied against the ghetto. In the first decades of the seventeenth century it has been estimated that the net revenue received from the ghetto was approximately 220,000 ducats; the sum was much higher than any collected from Venice’s overseas or mainland colonies.

Yet a more exalted association can be placed beside this talk of taxes and ducats. It is significant, for example, that both Venetians and Jews had a solemn sense of law and a sacred belief in nationhood. They both shared a preoccupation with their native territory as a common heritage. They both believed that their constitution was in essence a covenant between deity and people. They both reverenced their forefathers, and had an inordinate respect for custom and tradition. The Jews knew themselves to be mutually interdependent, part of a communal life rendered ever more sacred by a common purpose and the necessity of self-preservation. Does this not remind us of the Venetian state? The two cultures were images one of another.

The Battle of Lepanto, painted by Paolo Veronese in 1571. This work was completed just a few months after a famous victory of the Venetian forces (among others) over the Turks. Two hundred and thirty Turkish vessels were sunk or captured, with only thirteen losses for the Europeans. Lepanto was the last battle in which the use of the oar held the key. In later engagements the sails were raised. (photo credit i2.1)

Plan of the Arsenal in the seventeenth century. The Arsenal of Venice was the largest shipbuilding enterprise in the world, with its own network of docks and system of production lines. Ships were turned out from the shipbuilding yards of the Arsenal fully rigged and fitted, in the first version of the capitalist factory. (photo credit i2.2)

Detail of a Venetian warship, taken from the mausoleum of Girolamo Michiel completed in 1559. The image of the ship, and the circumambient sea, can be glimpsed everywhere in Venice. The city itself can be seen as a ship upon the waves. (photo credit i2.3)

The sign for the Marangoni family of shipbuilders, painted on panel in 1517. Shipbuilding was of course one of the principal crafts of a city surrounded by water. Ship-builders offered defence, and protection, against the watery element. (photo credit i2.4)

Jan van Grevenbroeck’s painting of a workman dredging a canal, an image of the eighteenth century. In all periods of Venetian history the government was involved in major efforts concerning health care and sanitation. (photo credit i2.5)

Jan van Grevenbroeck’s painting of an oar-maker at work in Arsenal. Oar-making was one of the many Venetian trades springing from the sea. The oar was used in the perpetual battle against the natural world and in warfare against the city’s competitors. (photo credit i2.6)

A painting of a Venetian doctor during the time of plague, by Jan van Grevenbroeck. During the time of pestilence the doctors clothed themselves in black robes, coated with wax and aromatic oils; they wore a hood and cowl over their heads, large glasses to protect their eyes, and a long beak-like nose with a filter at its end. They looked themselves like ghouls. (photo credit i2.7)

The shop of a Venetian bell-maker, at the end of the eighteenth century, painted by Jan van Grevenbroeck. Venice was a city of bells, all of them pealing together at the time of processions. They also had a more practical use. The bells rang out at precise times of day to coordinate the activities of the populace. (photo credit i2.8)

A showroom with lamps and vases. For many centuries Venice has been famous for its glass-making, now the preponderant industry on the island of Murano. What is the attraction of glass for the city of the sea? Glass is material sea. It is sea made solid, its translucence captured and held immobile. (photo credit i2.9)

Lace workers on the island of Burano, photographed at the end of the nineteenth century. Burano has been for many centuries the home of lace-making in Venice. Lace is a Venetian specialty; like the mosaic it is an art of elaboration and intricacy. (photo credit i2.10)

A Venetian courtyard at the end of the nineteenth century. Venice is a city of dead-ends, and of circuitous alleys; there are twisting calli, and hidden turnings; there are low archways and blank courtyards, where the silence is suspended like a mist. (photo credit i2.11)

A photograph of a funeral gondola, taken at the beginning of the twentieth century. Venice has always been associated with death, and the gondola itself has often been viewed as a floating hearse. (photo credit i2.12)

The new railway bridge over the lagoon, depicted in the middle of the nineteenth century. The bridge represented perhaps the most radical change in the history of Venice. It became connected to the mainland. The city was no longer an island, and had lost its hallowed status as a refuge from the world. It meant, too, that the prime significance of the water had gone forever. It became a city of mechanical, rather than of natural, time. (photo credit i2.13)

The remains of the campanile, which collapsed on 27 July 1902. It buckled and folded upon itself, neatly imploding into a large pile of rubble. It fell, as the Venetians said at the time, “like a gentleman.” There were no fatalities, except that of the caretaker’s cat. (photo credit i2.14)

An illustration taken from The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, displaying types of the windows from the early Gothic palaces. The style was dominant in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, surviving even into the sixteenth century and giving an unmistakeable aspect to the city that still survives. Most of the well-known palaces or great houses are created in the Gothic mode. (photo credit i2.15)

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