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Migration in early modern Venice

In this video Rosa Salzberg discusses the impact of different migrations upon the city of Venice in the sixteenth century
Well, I’d say Venice– Renaissance Venice– is a particularly important and particularly interesting case study for the history of cities and migration. Firstly, because it was one of the largest cities in Europe at the time– one of the few largest cities. So migration was simply just essential to its growth and to its success. Cities didn’t naturally replenish their populations in this period, so migration is how they grew. Venice was also a particularly mobile place, because it was, by this point, the capital of a vast empire that stretched from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Alps– so also culturally diverse and religiously diverse. And lots of people look towards Venice and came to Venice for various reasons from its empire.
It was still one of the most important trading centres in Europe– trading goods between East and West. And also a transit point for people moving between Europe and the Mediterranean in the East– for example, pilgrims taking ships to the Holy Land, merchants– all kinds of people on the move for different reasons. So it was a real crossroads of mobility and people coming for different reasons.
Migration becomes a really hot issue particularly in the 16th century, I would say, because there’s very rapid population growth– so the population of Venice grows from about 100,000 people at the beginning of the 16th century to about 170,000 in the first two-thirds of the 16th century. So we’re talking about very rapid growth. But, at the same time, a range of other pressures that send people towards the city that make the population swell, such as bouts of epidemic disease, there’s war going on at various points in the Mediterranean and on the Italian mainland. There’s also religious schism in Europe in this period with the Protestant Reformation.
And these are things that make the movement of people and suspicion of different kinds of migrants more acute, more of a political issue, more of a social issue. So the government of Venice in this period is particularly active in trying to control and monitor flows of people coming towards the city to actively encourage certain kinds of migrants– for example, merchants and labourers that they need for the Venetian economy. But also to discourage other kinds of migrants that they see are going to be a kind of drain on the local population, or are going to bring in dangerous ideas or diseases, all these kind of things.
Well, let’s say, firstly, that Venice is kind of famous, or perhaps notorious, in this period for quite a characteristic spatial politics of segregating– of trying to segregate– different groups of foreigners and migrants in different parts of the city. So probably the most famous example is the Jewish ghetto, which was created in 1516, and is where we get our word “ghetto” from. But it did similar kinds of confinement of different groups in different areas. So, for example, German merchants had to stay and reside in a particular building in the centre of the city. They were much less segregated than the Jews, but they were still meant to be locked inside at night.
And a similar structure was set up for Muslim merchants later in the 16th century. So these were a particularly Venetian solution to what they saw of the problem of wanting to have these different foreigners in the city, but at the same time, to limit their contact with locals. And to oversee it, to a certain extent. So that’s something that’s quite evident in the cityscape– these different zones or buildings within the city that were dedicated to different groups. But I think the reality of life in the streets in the city would have been much more diverse.
In fact, people– observers– of the period talk about the city of a whole range of people from different places, different languages, different kinds of faces and clothing, exotic clothing of people from different parts of the world present in the streets of Venice. And, simply, mixing with people who are different from oneself couldn’t be avoided in a city that was very densely populated and crowded. So, particularly, certain neighbourhoods of the city became full of lodging houses and shared apartments, in which visitors and recent migrants would live– particularly areas near the docks or the shipyards. Lots of Venetians made money– made extra money– renting out rooms or beds to newcomers and to migrants.
So there was a kind of, I would say, a very practical, pragmatic kind of coexistence of people of different– from different places– as a kind of daily fact of life in the city at this time, which, on the whole, they managed to do without high levels of conflict.

Rosa Salzberg, University of Warwick (UK) and European University Institute (Italy) discusses the impact of immigration on the city of Venice during the sixteenth century.

We asked Rosa the following questions:

Why is Renaissance Venice an important case study for the history of cities and migration?

Why was migration a big issue at this time?

How did migration change the city at ‘street level’ in this period?

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Migration and Cities

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