The Bellow & the Uproar

Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization

by Richard Sennett
Norton, 431 pp., $27.50

In 1515 the Venetians decided to take action against the Jews. As a great trading city, Venice could not expel them: they were too badly needed as moneylenders, doctors, and traders. But they could be segregated and kept out of sight, and the city’s unique topography offered a unique opportunity. The Jews were clustered into a place in a remote northwestern quarter of the city where the canals formed an island of roughly oval shape. Only two drawbridges, drawn up at night, connected it with the rest of the town. No balconies were allowed to face outward. Because of the lack of space, the buildings soon towered six or seven stories upward, sheer and blank like the walls of a fortress. The place was named, from the industry that had formerly been there, the Foundry—in the local dialect, Ghetto.

Richard Sennett’s Flesh and Stone is, in his own words, “a history of the city told through people’s bodily experience.” The way people were forced into ghettos makes a telling case study for him. From Venice he moves to Rome, where Pope Paul IV began to build a ghetto (the word may now shed its capital letter) in 1555. Since its site was in the heart of the city, it could not segregate the Jews in the same way as the Venetian Ghetto did, but in any case the Pope’s intention, according to Sennett, was different: to weaken the power of the Christian merchant class and to collect Jews together in the hope that they might thus be more easily converted.

The difference, indeed, remains discernible in the two cities today. No tourist is likely to stumble upon the Venetian ghetto; he must seek it out, and he will find it still secret, ancient and picturesque. One may pass in and out of the former Roman ghetto without being aware of it, and yet it is distinct, curiously, as being quite the dullest part of central Rome—no palazzi, no baroque façades with swirling saints above. Sennett is alert to the ironies of unintended consequences: the Ghetto of Venice, he notes, was under surveillance from without, but there was no surveillance within, and the state’s oppression created the conditions for developing a sense of community and solidarity and a kind of freedom.

In a later chapter Sennett contrasts this with the ghettos, so called, of more recent times, defined not by race but by poverty (Sennett instances the Lower East Side, Little Italy, and even Harlem as neighborhoods which are or have been ethnically mixed). The first ghettos became centers of pride and honor; the modern ghetto is tainted with failure: it is the place of those who have been left behind. Whereas the older ghetto had its sense of community but struggled to turn outward to make contact with the citizenry beyond its boundaries, the newer ghetto had to turn inward mentally if it wanted to recover or invent a communal spirit.

The growth of the newer ghettos, unlike the…

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