The Island of Torcello
The island of Torcello, settled in the 5th to 6th centuries, is older than Venice and was a very important island and trading port in ancient times. Once said to have population of around 20,000 inhabitants; it was a town with a cathedral and bishops before, St Mark’s Basilica on Venice was built.
Eventually, for a variety of reasons, such as episodes of the plague, silting up of its environment and canal system, malaria, loss of farming land due to salt water incursion; its inhabitants either died or moved to Venice and other neighbouring islands. Building materials were recycled, so that little remains of its once splendid palaces, churches and monasteries.
Perhaps the main reason for visiting the island today, is to see the 7th century Cathedral of Santa Maria Dell’ Assunta with its spectacular Byzantine mosaics; as well as the nearby 11th century Church of Santa Fosca and Museum, all positioned around the islands only remaining square.
Torcello, is not only worth visiting for its historical significance and fascinating sites; but also, for its peaceful atmosphere and the beautiful and serene landscape. Much of the island is a nature reserve, accessible only on the walking paths.
Before you leave, consider taking a long walk on the island and/or having a lovely lunch at one of several fine restaurants, serving authentic Italian cuisine. The most famous restaurant is the “Locanda Cipriani”, popular amongst celebrities, tourists, and locals. Sit down in the restaurant’s beautiful garden and enjoy the view of the church and cathedral.
John Ruskin once described Torcello as “the mother of Venice.” Today, visitors to this small island might find that hard to believe!
ABOVE: Aerial view of Torcello. Waterbus stop at top left, with canal and various restaurants, running towards the historic centre with Cathedral of St Mary Assunta and Bell-tower.
The Island of Torcello – HISTORY
Torcello, as early as the 2nd century AD, was already a point of arrival and place of trade between the sea and hinterland; in essence it was an early port for the Roman mainland territory, of which the city of Altinum (Altino) was its capital.
It was connected to the most important ancient road links with eastern and northern Europe: the Via Annia and the Via Claudia Augusta. Inhabited, with port and trading facilities, it was integrated into the economic system of the Roman Empire.
From the 2nd century BC, an organised road and inland waterway network radiated from Altino and across the lagoon; allowing communication between Altino and Ravenna.
LEFT: Indication of the extent of the Roman Empire at various dates BC.
The islands in the lagoon probably served as way-stations and would have been populated most probably by hunters, fisherman and salt collectors.
Torcello expanded further, during the centuries of the invasions and formation of the Roman‑Barbarian kingdoms. These northern lagoon islands, were therefore neither unknown nor deserted. It offered the mainland population a safe place to live and form a larger community, which reached its maximum size in the 10th century.
Torcello, was thus the lagoon city, before the Rialto and Venice; a flourishing place dedicated to trade.
Early Settlements and Development
The first permanent settlers arrived around the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century.
The mainland inhabitants of Altinum (modern-day Altino) and other Roman cities searched for security on the marshy islands in the lagoon, from the invading Hun and Lombard armies; who gradually conquered much of the Italian mainland, during the 5th and 6th centuries.
The Huns arrived in the 5th century around 452, while the Lombard’s started their invasion of northern Italy in 568-9.
The Lombard Kingdom pushed the Byzantines into the Lagoon, which acquired importance as a strategic location in its new island territories.
They settled on the islands of Torcello, Burano, Murano, Mazzorbo, Ammiano and Costanziaco. These islands were under the authority of the Byzantine Empire and the local authority was moved to the islands; when the Lombard’s, after their conquest of Oderzo in 641, achieved political control over the Byzantine province of Venetia et Histria.
Bishop Paul of Altino moved the seat of the bishopric to Torcello, in 638. He brought with him many of the most significant relics and religious objects, including the relics of Saint Heliodorus of Altino (332-390). They were housed in the Byzantine cathedral of Santa Maria dell Assunta, built in 639. Torcello became the bishop’s official seat for more than a thousand years.
The religious authorities from the other major Roman cities (such as Grado and Aquileia, Oderzo and Caorle); were also moved to other lagoon islands during this period.
Many religious buildings from this period were built on Torcello. Few of them are still standing, but the oldest church in the whole lagoon; the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, and the later adjoining Church of Santa Fosca, is still in use and are great visitor attractions today.
In 740-742 the capital of the Dogeship moved away from Heraclius on the mainland, to Malamocco. Finally, in 810-811, having avoided being absorbed into the Carolingian Kingdom; the seat of power moved to Rialto, which would become the heart of Venice, with St Mark replacing St Teodoro, as its new patron.
Between the 8th and 10th centuries AD, the dioceses in the lagoon islands organised themselves. Torcello being one of the largest, divided itself into twelve parishes; each with its own churches and palaces.
The city was constructed from stone rescued from the abandoned Roman cities on the mainland, or from materials purchased with Torcello’s new-found wealth; with salt extraction and exportation, being its most valuable trading commodity.
Development came to a halt during the 11th century, when more of the commercial production and trade was centralised and moved to Venice.
Having become only a municipal authority, Torcello’s decline had begun. This was exacerbated by population decline, caused by the plague and some major environment problems.
The “Black Death” plague devastated the Venice Republic in 1348 and again between 1575 and 1577, killing some 50,000 people. A further wave of the Italian plague of 1629–31, killed a third of Venice’s 150,000 citizens.
A further serious issue for Torcello specifically, was that from the 12th century onward, the saline marshes around the island had become more of a swamp. This was thought to be due to the silting up of the area and its canal systems, due to sediment pouring into the lagoon from the mainland’s rivers.
Navigation in the “laguna morta” (dead lagoon) became impossible and Torcello’s canals became unable to accommodate boats of any size; making trade impossible. This problem seriously aggravated the spread of malaria.
There was no economic resource for sea defences to prevent loss of farmland, compounded by a lack of labour for its cultivation.
The economy gradually became one of subsistence and trade shifted to Venice and other nearby islands.
As a result, by the late 14th century, a substantial number of people left the island for Venice, Murano and Burano. The abandoned buildings were dismantled and sold for new construction, mainly in Venice.
In 1689, the bishopric transferred to Murano and by 1797, the population had dropped to about 300. In 1818, the diocese was suppressed and Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral and all of the bishopric, was absorbed into the Venetian patriarchate.
Fortunately, during the 17th century, the Sile and Dese rivers were diverted and the navigable waters around Torcello improved; but by then the island had been nearly deserted.
Today, Torcello now has a full-time population of about 30, including the parish priest; all reliant on tourism and some farming.
Torcello’s numerous palazzi, its twelve parishes and its sixteen cloisters have almost disappeared, since the Venetians recycled the useful building material.
Only one piazza remains, containing the only remaining medieval structures; consisting of a cathedral with separate campanile, a church, the town’s former council chamber and archives, now the museum.
The Cathedral of Santa Maria dell Assunta
According to an ancient inscription, it was founded by the exarch Isaac of Ravenna in 639, when Torcello was still a rival to the early nearby settlement at Venice.
Built in 639 AD, the Byzantine cathedral of Santa Maria dell Assunta, is the oldest surviving building in the Venetian lagoon. It was constructed from materials reclaimed from the mainland.
The first of two major renovations occurred in 864 under the direction of Bishop Adeodatus II. The final renovation was consecrated in 1008, under Bishop Orso Orseolo; whose father Pietro Orseolo II, was the Doge of Venice at the time. The basilica and campanile are intact and open to the public. However, its baptistery lies in ruins.
The 11th century basilica, preserves some of the features of the original church. The pulpit, for instance is constructed from salvaged marble fragments from the original building. Below the altar of the basilica, is a crypt where you can see the original brick walls of the cathedral. This crypt also contains another relic; a Roman sarcophagus said to contain the remains of St Heliodorus.
St Heliodorus was made the first bishop of Altinum in the 4th century. Legend tells that when he retired from the bishopric, Heliodorus chose to retire to an island in the lagoon where he lived as a hermit. When he died, his remains returned to Altinum. When the citizen’s fled the city for Torcello, they brought St Heliodorus with them
Left: Exterior of St Maria Assunta with ruined Baptistry. Right: Interior. Note the wonderful “Rood Screen”
The basilica is home to some beautiful pieces of medieval art, such as the Byzantine rood screen, whose marble panels are carved with lions and flowers and two peacocks drinking from the fountain of life.
However, the basilica’s chief wonders are its luminous 12th century mosaics.
The mosaics of Santa Maria dell Assunta are stunning in their artistry and effect. The scenes they portray are depicted in jewel like colours, set against a gold background that illuminates the figures and the cathedral itself.
The cathedral is most famous for its mosaic depicting the Last Judgement, the so-called “Doomsday mosaic”, which covers the whole west wall. The Apse is decorated with a striking image of the Madonna and child.
The cathedral also has a separate tall 11th century bell tower, that dominates the skyline.
The cathedral is open daily from 10:00 to 17:30. There is an additional charge to climb up the bell tower, which has a rather narrow and steep stairway. (All subject to Covid-19 regulations – please check)
Left:Virgin Hodegetria, isolated against a huge gold background, above a register of standing saints. Right: West Wall. The “last Judgement” (Doomsday mosaic)
Church of Santa Fosca
Next door to the Cathedral is the small 12th century church of Santa Fosca (Saint Fusca of Ravenna), a domed church with portico built on a Greek cross plan. Although not as dramatic as the neighbouring cathedral, its plain interior is beautiful in its simplicity.
Marble Greek style Corinthian columns support the slanting wooden roof of the interior, while the shaded portico runs its exterior.
The church once housed the remains of the Libyan child saint, Saint Fosca was a native to Sabratha Martyred with her nurse, Maura, for their Christianity, around 250 AD, in Ravenna, under the persecutions of the Roman Emperor Decius.
Their remains stayed in Libya until the Arabic invasions when they were rescued and brought to Torcello. The bones of Fosca and Maura now reside in the Church of Santa Maria di Lourdes in Milan, one of the many relics to leave Torcello after its decline.
It is thought that a church dedicated to Santa Fosca existed on this site, since the first half of the 9th century. Around 1000, the building was part of the larger project for the reconstruction of the entire complex of the cathedral; promoted by the Bishop Orso Orseolo,
The building received its current appearance around the 12th century, when it was rebuilt to house the relics of the christian martyrs Fosca and Maura, arrived from Sabratha, in Africa.
Left: The beautiful simplicity of the interior
Museum (originally the Council Chamber and Archives)
Torcello’s original centre of government can be found on the left of the square.
The Museo Provinciale di Torcello, is currently housed in what was two 14th century palaces, the Palazzo dell’Archivio (archives) and the Palazzo del Consiglio (council chamber); which was once the seat of the communal government.
The Museum houses a collection of works reflecting the history of the Venetian lagoon from private collections, archaeological finds and artefacts purchased by collectors, as well as handicrafts discovered in Torcello, the adjacent islands and the neighbouring mainland.
The museum is divided into two main sections: the archaeological finds and the medieval and modern sections.
The Archaeological Section, which is housed in the Palazzo dell’Archivio, contains archaeological finds coming from the Lagoon and relics from other areas dating from the Palaeolithic era to the late-Roman period.
The Medieval and Modern Section, which is housed in the Palazzo del Consiglio, contains objects and documents from the first centuries of the Christian Era until the 19th century presenting the history of the island of Torcello and its relations with the area of Altino, the Byzantine culture and the city of Venice.
The Casa Museo Andrich, is an artist house and museum displaying more than 1000 artworks. It also has an educational farm and garden, overlooking the lagoon; a good place to see flamingos from March through September. The museum/gallery offers a standard guided tour for 1 hour, every day at 11.30 am or 14.30pm fora maximum 10 people (between adults and children).
Check out their website for info and booking at: https://museoandrich.comTop
Ernest Hemingway spent some time there in 1948, writing parts of “Across the River” and “Into the Trees”. The novel contains representations of Torcello and its surroundings. In addition, numerous famous artists, musicians, and movie stars, have spent time on the island; a quiet refuge. Torcello is the background for Daphne du Maurier’s short story “Don’t Look Now”.
HOW TO GET TO TORCELLO FROM VENICE
The only way to reach Torcello is on water, either through taking the public waterbus transport (Vaporetto) system or private boat. You may like to consider making a day trip away from Venice; by including a visit to either Murano (the art of glass-blowing), or Burano (tradition of lace making and colourful houses).
You can take the Vaporetto Line 12, departing from the Fondamente Nuove A, on the northern coast of the city. Water-buses departing about every 30 minutes and takes about 50 minutes. Line 12 mainly serves the routes to the popular isles of the northern lagoon, such as Murano, Burano and Torcello.
Alternatively take Line 14 from San Zaccaria (close to St Mark’s Square) to Burano and change there to Line 9 for Torcello. This last stage takes about 5 minutes and leaves every half hour until 8:30 pm. Times may vary, so always check.
Arriving at the waterbus stop on Torcello, it’s a ten-minute stroll alongside the Maggiori Canal; one of its two surviving canals, before reaching its only remaining Piazza and its historic buildings. On the way you pass several fine restaurants and the renowned Devils Bridge (“Ponte del Diavolo”), characterised by the absence of handrails. (Read about the legend around it below).
LEGEND OF THE DEVILS BRIDGE
The Ponte del Diavolo, the bridge that crosses the Maggiore Canal, was built in the 15th century on 13th century foundations and there is a curious legend surrounding the bridge’s construction and its lack of sides.
The story begins with a young Venetian girl who fell in love with a solider, after the Austrians invaded Venice. The girl’s family, furious about the girl’s choice of suitor banished her and while she was away; she heard that her lover had been murdered.
The distraught girl returned to Venice and soon afterwards met with a witch who promised the girl she could bring her Austrian lover back to life- if she entered into a pact with the devil. The girl was to present Satan with the souls of seven Christian children- on the devil’s bridge in Torcello.
The girl agreed and travelled to Torcello with the witch. At the island, she crossed the bridge with a candle in one hand and a gold coin in the other while the witch raised the devil. Sure enough, the devil appeared. He spat the key to eternity into the water of the canal and the Austrian solider appeared on the opposite end of the bridge to the girl. To fulfil the pact, the girl and the witch were to deliver the souls of the seven children on Christmas Eve. However, a young man discovered their scheme.
To save the children, he killed the witch and every Christmas; the devil appears on the bridge, waiting in vein for his final payment.
However, the alternate explanation is that it derives its name from a corruption of the name of a local family – the Diavoli.
WHERE TO EAT OR STAY
Visitors can eat lunch or stay in the upmarket and historic “Locanda Cipriani”, located in the Piazza Santa Fosca. It is a unique place to stay after the visitors have gone for the day. Here in 1948, Ernest Hemingway wrote part of his novel, “Across the River” and “Through the Trees” and the hotel has hosted many other famous guests.
Another place to stay is Bed and Breakfast Ca’ Torcello, alongside the canal, close to the Devil’s Bridge.
Several other fine restaurants are listed below, where you can have lunch on the island. All are alongside or close to the canal that runs from the waterbus stop to the historic centre.
Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo (closed Mondays), serves lunches based on fresh, seasonal ingredients and has outdoor seating in a garden.
Ristorante Villa ‘600 (closed Wednesdays), is housed in a building dating from the 1600’s and has an outdoor dining area in a beautiful setting.
Ristorante al Trono di Attila (closed Mondays, except in summer), also serves lunch.
Taverna Tipica Veneziana (closest to the waterbus stop)
Please see my other related posts in: Islands of the Lagoon
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