Venice’s outlying Torcello island has been described by Henry James in his book, Italian Hours, as a “case of unheeded collapse” yet “enchantment lurks in it”. My husband and I went on a half-day tour to explore the outlying islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello on the Venetian lagoon a couple of years ago. We found it was everything Mr. James described along with some pleasant surprises.
Torcello became a settlement in the 5th century AD and was a refuge for the Roman city of Altino’s residents trying to escape barbarians. The bishop moved his seat to Torcello and churches and convents were built. Its location led it to become a thriving trade center. In the 14th century, its population peaked at 20,000 with the city’s churches and palaces rivaling Venice.
Over the years, Torcello’s canals began to fill up with silt (fine sand and clay particles) from mainland rivers and were unable to accommodate boats. The trade center slowly moved to Venice instead. The canals’ shallow waters led to a malaria outbreak that took a toll on its remaining population. Survivors packed up for Venice, took down buildings and brought what materials they could salvage to their new location. In many ways, Torcello gave birth to Venice. Torcello never recovered and much of it is now a nature reserve with a few dozen residents (can vary by source).
Our vaporetto docked on the island and the only sounds we heard were birds and the sound of the engine shutting off. It seemed like we were the only tourists on the island. Dilapidated looking structures, with peeling paint, revealed small glimpses of their once vibrant colors. They lined the lone, paved walkway alongside the canal.
It was so eerily quiet and felt so isolated. We felt like we stepped back in time. It was hard to imagine how it used to look with busy activities along the canal and these houses swarming with people. There was a sense of melancholy in these buildings. We actually saw more stray cats roaming around than residents. I don’t know how we ended up not having a single cat picture.
We came across a stoned arch bridge called Ponte del Diavolo or Devil’s Bridge. It was built in the 15th century but restored in 2009. There were varying accounts of its name ranging from it being after a local family (Diavoli) or to an Italian legend that the bridge was built in exchange for souls. It’s one of the few bridges in the lagoon without a lateral support and like ancient times – no railings. This linked Torcello’s residential area to its farmlands.
The short walk led us to Torcello’s main tourist attractions. From a distance, the square-shaped bell tower or campanile was visible but closed during renovations. The small plaza was home to two churches that have withstood the ravages of weather and time.
The Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta was founded in 639 AD and last rebuilt in 1008 AD. It was the oldest monumental building in the Venetian lagoon and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary – dubbed as Venice’s first cathedral.
Don’t let its simple, rough-looking facade fool you. This church housed some fine collection of Byzantine wall mosaics from the 11th century.
Unfortunately, the basilica was closed during our visit. We would have been graced inside with marble columns, mosaic floors and a treasure trove of impressive and intricate Byzantine-Roman mosaics such as the Last Judgment and the Madonna and child whose imposing mosaic is said to cover one wall. We’d gladly go back just to see these masterpieces.
The octagonal building of the Church of Santa Fosca was built between the 11th and 12th century- a bit newer than its neighbor. Its purpose was to hold the body of a virgin martyr, St. Fosca from Ravenna whose remains are still stored under the altar.
The church was designed as a Greek cross style (arms of equal length), with three apses or semi-domes. From what I’ve read, its interior was a bit more simplistic than the basilica next door.
Off to the side of the plaza were the Pallazo del Consiglio or Council Palace which was the local government’s seat during the 14th century and the Archives Palace. This is now a museum that houses a collection of various church fragments that once stood in Torcello and some Byzantine objects and many of the island’s artifacts.
We came across this courtyard full of statues and sculptures. We weren’t quite sure if this was their resting place or a temporary home. Their placements and overall feeling of abandonment almost felt like walking into Medusa’s garden. Remember the Greek mythology creature who turned people into stone once they caught sight of her?
As a former refuge to its original residents, Torcello has once again served as a haven for visitors looking for some serenity and trying to escape the throngs of tourists in Venice. Over the years, Torcello’s famous inn – the Locanda Cipriani – have welcomed distinguished royalties and celebrities as they detail on their memories page. Ernest Hemingway sought solitude here to write “Across the River and Into The Trees“.
We spent a little over an hour on the island since many things were closed. There wasn’t even a tourist vendor in sight but one kiosk selling beverages and snacks. Granted, it was late November so it was far from tourist season. We do recommend the three island tour to see the interesting differences among them and see their stark contrast to Venice. You’ll never know what fascinating things you’ll discover and learn on these islands.
*Have you visited Torcello or the Venetian lagoon’s other islands? Does Torcello’s isolation appeal to you?