This is a beautifully hand-coloured view of 16th-century Venice – the setting for two of Shakespeare’s plays, The Merchant of Venice and Act 1 of Othello, and Ben Jonson's Volpone.
The view is part of an opulent atlas of the world’s cities, the Civitates orbis terrarum, first published in six parts between 1572 and 1617, and printed in this early 17th-century edition (c. 1600–23). This ambitious collection of 546 engraved views of cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and Mexico was edited by the German Georg Braun and largely engraved by Frans Hogenberg. They relied heavily on first-hand drawings and engravings produced by over 100 other artists, including the Flemish Joris Hoefnagel.
Early modern Venice
Venice held a powerful place in the Elizabethan imagination, both for those who saw it directly and for the many who encountered it through images, texts and word-of-mouth tales circulating in England.
The city is geographically unique. Located on the north-east coast of Italy in the midst of a marshy lagoon, it is made up of more than 100 small islets divided by canals. With its advantageous location, it became the major trading post between Europe, North Africa and the Levant (in the Eastern Mediterranean). It was well-known as a prosperous city with a huge sea empire and ethnically diverse population.
Venice was also celebrated as an early tourist attraction, renowned for its art and architecture, its canals and gondolas. Politically, it was distinctive as an independent republic. But it also gained a reputation as a place of illicit pleasure, with notorious courtesans (prostitutes).
The Jewish Ghetto of Venice
In 1516, the city became the site of one of the earliest Jewish ‘Ghettos’ – a word probably derived from the dialect word getto describing the disused foundry nearby. In English, the term ‘ghetto’ was first used specifically for this quarter of Venice, but is now applied much more widely to urban areas of deprivation and segregation.
This is one of the first maps in which the Jewish Ghetto is labelled – listed as number 144 in the directory at the bottom. This directs the viewer to a guarded, walled area on a tiny island in the far north-west, near the ‘San Segondo frati’ church (as shown in the detail).
The Venetian Ghetto was a contradictory place of safety and fierce constriction. It was built to house, but also to segregate, the many Jews who had moved to Venice after the region was invaded in 1509. They were granted protection, but largely only because of the money they gave the city.
The Jews in Venice were forced onto a small overcrowded island and obliged to wear coloured badges to distinguish them. They built a number of synagogues, but were banned from owning property and obliged to pay high rent to Christians. They were also barred from many jobs, but were allowed to be doctors, traders of second-hand clothes or money-lenders (like Shakespeare’s Shylock). Interestingly, in his Italian-English dictionary A Worlde of Wordes (1598), John Florio translates the word ‘getto’ as ‘the Arte of casting or founding of mettals’ but also as ‘usury’ – lending money for interest.