The 15th and 16th centuries saw a shameful period of what would now be called ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Europe. In 1492, all jews were expelled from Spain and soon other southern European states followed suit. Similar expulsions from England and France in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries had concentrated Europe’s jewish communities in Spain, Portugal, the German states and the Italian peninsula and now this new wave of expulsions threatened to eradicate them from western Europe, pushing them instead to northern Africa and the near East.
At the beginning of the 16th century, the Venetian Republic came under pressure from the Catholic Church to expel their thriving jewish community. Guided as ever by the maxim primi Veneziani, poi Cristiani (first Venetians and then Christians) the government was reluctant to do so because much of the republic’s trade relied on the presence of jewish bankers. Therefore, in 1516, Venice came up with a compromise that they hoped would suit the Pope. Rather than expel the jews, their liberty and activities would be restricted. But they would be allowed to remain.
In order to achieve this, the government ordered that all jews should be made to live in a disused foundry in the Cannaregio district of the city. The foundry was built on a single island surrounded by a wide canal, and they fitted drawbridges which would be used to confine the jews to this area at night while allowing them access to the rest of the city by day. This place was known as the New Foundry, or in the Venetian language ghetto novo and so a new word, now synonymous with persecution, made its first appearance on the world stage.
The inhabitants of the ghetto novo tended to be Ashkenazy jews, but very soon other jews began to arrive in Venice having been expelled from elsewhere. These included the Levantine jews, most of whom arrived from Spain via the near East, who were settled in the adjacent ghetto vecchio (Old Foundry) area. Later in the sixteenth century they were joined by jews from other Italian states as the expulsions continued.
Even though any restriction on people’s liberties based on race is abhorrent, the forced internment of Venice’s jews in the ghetto created a vibrant community with a unique culture and tradition which exists to this day. Although, due to more recent and even more shocking events, the number of jews living in Venice is considerably smaller today than when the ghetto was at its height, a small but thriving jewish community still occupies the area.
I was lucky enough to spend last weekend in the ghetto and had the opportunity to explore the area and to try some typical pastries which are unique to the Venetian jewish community. These included some delightful pyramid-shaped cookies which came in jam or chocolate flavours and some long pastries, shaped rather like crocodiles, called impade. These are essentially a sweet short pastry filled with an almond cream.
My favourites however, were some biscuits called azime dolci. These are round, sweet biscuits, quite hard in texture since they are made with oil rather than butter, and flavoured with fennel seeds. Now fennel seeds have always been one of my favourite flavours but I am more used to them in a savoury context. I must say that these biscuits were exquisite. I have found a recipe for azime which I will be posting later in the week when I’ve had a chance to try them out.
If you find yourself in Venice I must say that the ghetto area is well worth a visit and there’s an excellent museum in which you can immerse yourself in the history of this unique place.