The iron workers’ Venetian island was a melting pot for European Jewry.

Ghosts – some tragic, some heroic – lurk in the porticos, narrow lanes and waterways of the world’s first ghetto, established in Venice five centuries ago. Yet, despite a history of persecution, repression and the bloody fingerprints of the Holocaust, the Jewish enclave offers an island of calm and tranquillity in a noise-embattled city thronged with tourists, under whose weight (and the impact of global warming) it is slowly sinking into the Adriatic. And, like the city of which it is part, the ghetto – established by decree on March 29, 1516 – is a place steeped in history and marked by contradictions. Of Venice’s 500-strong Jewish population today, fewer than half have their homes on the canal-fringed island. This comprises the Ghetto Nuovo and the Ghetto Vecchio and, contrarily, the ‘new’ ghetto is the older of the two.

Canalside hors d’oeuvres,prepared by a Bangladeshi chef

Even the ghetto’s most famous kosher restaurant has its own quirk, for the chef is a gentile from Bangladesh, as I discovered when I popped into the GamGam’s kitchen to compliment the staff on a memorable lunch at the restaurant’s outdoor tables along the Cannaregio Canal.

Typifying the racial diversity of both its Jewry and the city, Venice’s controversial Chief Rabbi, Scialom Bahbout, was born in Libya. For like Venice – and like Gibraltar – over the past 500 years, the ghetto has been a melting pot of peoples and cultures. An appropriate imagery, for the name ‘ghetto’ derives from ‘gietto’ – a foundry in the Venetian dialect. It drew Sephardic Jews fleeing from Spain, others from North Africa and the Levant, as well as scholars and philosophers from the Germanic states and from France.

During the Middle Ages, Jews were accepted as valued members of the city’s multi-cultural society, as doctors, teachers, shop-owners, or money lenders – at the heart of the financial services for which need grew as the Serene Republic (Serenissima) waxed even fatter on international trade. But their success as bankers and the influence it gave them proved their undoing, and in 1385 the Senate decided to expel them from the city and certain economic activities.

One of two high bridges to the ghetto – gated from dusk to dawn, barring entry to the rest of Venice

But even then, Venice’s economic growth depended on its Jewish bankers, for in Medieval Europe (from the 11th to the 15th centuries) the Catholic Church banned the charging of all financial interest. However, for the Serenissima’s international trade to flourish, it needed easy access to the steady flow of funds, which the Jewish bankers could provide. Jews also still traded in Venice, but they were barred from owning property or even having homes within the city’s boundaries until the 1525 decision to confine them to the iron workers’ island.

‘At first they were not permitted to live in Venice, and with the establishment of the ghetto they were forced to live in a designated area,’ Bahbout explains. ‘It was like a prison.’ And at the peak of the Jewish presence more than 3,000 were crammed into it. And as in today’s Gibraltar, accommodation could only grow upwards. The apartment buildings of the ghetto are among the tallest in Venice.

One of the narrow canals which isolated the iron-foundry island

Access to the ghetto was across two iron gated iron bridges which were closed from dusk until dawn and during Christian religious festivals. The residents were allowed to work only as money lenders or second-hand dealers and – in what could be seen as an ominous precursor to the events in Nazi Germany four centuries later, they were compelled to wear symbols of their faith, initially a yellow cloth star and, later, yellow hats.

But they enjoyed freedom of worship, and at the peak of the Jewish presence the ghetto was home to nine synagogues, each the spiritual home of a separate ethnic or cultural group, only five of which remain in use, but each a hidden architectural and artistic gem. Among the professions prohibited to Jews were architecture and construction, so the designs and decorative work were carried out by the craftsmen of Venice and were both elaborate and beautiful a mix of semi-rococo and baroque more ornate than I have seen in other synagogues.

Constrictions on space also influence their build, and synagogues were incorporated into existing structures rather than as stand-alone buildings so that many of the temples were built several storeys above ground – above shops or apartments – and behind exterior facades of domestic architecture.

On a floor above one of these remarkable creations – the Scola Ponentina, or Spanish synagogue built by Sephardic Jews exiled from Moorish Spain in 1580 – Rabbi Bahbout has his office. The synagogue has an elaborately carved wooden ceiling, huge crystal chandeliers, and a mosaic stone floor. It is one of the few at ground level and one of three open to visitors touring the Jewish museum.

‘Like the city of Venice, our community is becoming more and more of a museum,’ Bahbout argues. ‘We need a city that is alive… that reinvents itself. Even though we are a small community, we have deep roots. We need to reinforce and strengthen those roots.’

He believes that Venice’s Jews today are searching for a deeper cultural and religious experience. ‘It is difficult because most young people are leaving for places where they are assured of a more comprehensive Jewish life,’ he told a recent interviewer. In Italy, that meant Milan or Rome. Many also move to Israel, Paris or New York.

In a sense, and paradoxically, this would require almost a return to the past, for as the Serenissima flourished, Jews from Germany, Portugal, Spain, France and southern Italy found refuge in the ghetto and not only established synagogues that reflected their different ethnicities and languages, but also turned Venice into a centre of learning, renowned for printing and publishing Jewish books and manuscripts.

Jewish memorabilia in the window of a ghetto antique shop

‘Life in the ghetto was vibrant because the Jews were not homogeneous. It was a melting pot,’ wrote historian Riccardo Calimani in a book about the ghetto. And the former president and vice president of the Jewish community in Venice added: ‘Through publishing they attracted intellectuals from abroad and the community became a bridge between northern Europe and Constantinople. But today they say the community is dying like the city of Venice. It is not easy.’

The gates to the ghetto and the restrictions they represented remained closed until 1797 when Napoleon’ troops captured Venice and the civil rights of the Jews were restored and again they played an important part in the city’s cultural and intellectual development. Several were prominent players in Italy’s unification.

But in 1938 under the fascist regime of Mussolini, they were again deprived of their civil liberties. Their numbers, too, had dwindled as Italy’s Jews fled the jack-booted regime, and by 1943 when Nazi Germany occupied Italy, fewer than 400 remained in the ghetto – 246 of these were deported to the death camps. Only eight returned.

Today in the tranquil plazas and narrow lanes, you can sense the ghosts…