A couple of weeks ago I wrote of a“hortus conclusus”

-- the enclosed or walled garden of the ruling class, which emerged in the Middle Ages. Perhaps the antithesis of this confined verdure within an urban environment would be the “ghetto”.  The juxtaposition here is that it is not inhabited by the ruling class, but in effect an “abandoned” landscape by the ruling class. The Urban Dictionary 1 defines "ghetto" as “a section of a city to which an entire ethnic or economically depressed group is restricted; as by poverty or social pressure or political power. An impoverished, neglected, or otherwise disadvantaged residential area of a city.”

The “architecture” of the ghetto within society was introduced hundreds of years ago in Europe.  William Shakespeare uses the ghetto as a setting in The Merchant of Venice. Jews had been expelled from most of England during his time, but literary scholars believe he was aware of the Venetian Jews through the reading of the Jew of Malta by Christopher Marlowe written in 1589.  At that time Jews lived in a constricted segregated enclave. In the 1500’s Venetian Jews were forced to live on an island, within a walled area. As it was counter to their beliefs, Christians at this time were not able to lend money and charge interest (usury).  Jews were prohibited from most careers, limiting competition within the general economy, however they were able to lend money.

AlPacino, "Hath not a Jew eyes?" soliloquoy from Merchant of Venice

Only two gates allowed Jews to leave after sunrise and return before dark. From sunset to morning the doors were locked.  These areas were never expanded, so that the natural increase in the Jewish population created a filthy slum with large numbers of people living in tight quarters. There was disinvestment from the Venetian government, lack of clean water and no sanitation services.  Jewish housing had to built upward into buildings several stories high (six), as they could not develop outward. 2

Ghetto Nuovo, Venice /

Ghetto Nuovo, Venice  /

The etymology of the word “ghetto” comes from the Latin word “ghet” or the verb “gettare” -- to pour or cast.  The reference pertains to the early Venetian ghetto, which was erected next to an iron foundry.

The ghetto system in Italian cities remained enforced until the era of the French Revolution.  It had a clear purpose: to enable Jews to take part in economic life, while setting strict limits on their participation in social life.


2. Shylock: A Legend and It’s Legacy; John Gross