So the three highlights of my December trip to Venice were the Joy Singers concert in the church of Santo Stefano, my daytrip to Padua to see the Giotto frescoes, and the day I spent on Torcello. And I can’t believe I haven’t written about Torcello yet! It’s mainly because I took so many photos that day and it’s taken me a while to go through them and also because I just didn’t know where to start, it was such a wonderful day with my best church visit ever.
It’s easy to get there from Venice. Go to the vaporetto stop on Fondamenta Nuove in Cannaregio and catch boat LN (Laguna Nord) which is the express boat to Burano. There you change boats to line T (for Torcello). The whole trip takes about 45 minutes to an hour and it’s a fun ride. You’ll pass San Michele, the cemetery island, with its beautiful Renaissance church, cruise past Murano and then by a number of romantic and mysterious abandoned lagoon islands with ruins on them. You can enjoy the crazy colors of Burano either before or after the trip to Torcello.
But why go to Torcello? Lots of reasons (and it’s going to take many blog posts to share them all) but in the words of writer Henry James, go to Torcello because enchantment lurks there. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.
Here’s a brief history of Torcello paraphrased from the multi-language historical marker on the island. I took a photo of the marker because in the background, behind the words, there’s an image of the Madonna and Child who reside in mosaic above the altar of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello’s cathedral. The mosaics in that church are one of the many unforgettable sights on this island.
Archeological excavations done in the 1960’s found signs of life on Torcello since Roman times, with artifacts from a fishing colony and evidence of glass-making. But it was beginning in the 5th century when a huge influx of people moved into the lagoon, fleeing Attila the Hun and other barbarians wreaking havoc on their cities on the mainland.
Within a few centuries, Torcello was the most prosperous of all the lagoon colonies. At its height, it had 50,000 citizens and was a Mediterranean trading port of prime importance, with metalworks, glass making, and a wool industry. Torcello had its own government and nobility, and the island was the seat of the bishop from 638 and was also an important monastic community. Even as late as the 15th century, Torcello still had 16 monasteries and numerous churches forming 12 parishes.
The island’s decline began in the 14th century and was caused by three key factors: its canals silted up, impacting trade and the economy; Venice then became the prime trading port in the lagoon; and a lingering malaria epidemic devastated the population of Torcello.
Only a few reminders of Torcello's glorious past remain: two churches and a few medieval palaces including the two that now house a museum.
Well, I would love to know more about ALL those demolished churches! Actually, I’m sure I’ve seen remnants of them in Venice. In “The World of Venice, Jan Morris writes that any citizen of Torcello who survived the malaria epidemic moved to Venice and that…
“Presently the island was so deserted and disused that the Venetian builders, when they were short of materials, used to come to Torcello and load the remains of palaces into their barges, scrabbling among the rubble for the right size of staircase or a suitably sculptured cornice.
Through the centuries, poor Torcello rotted, crumbling and subsiding and declining into marshland again…by the middle of the 19th century, a visit to Torcello was, for every romantic visitor, a positive ecstasy of melancholia.”
Maybe I’m not a romantic visitor but Torcello doesn’t make me melancholy at all. It’s too beautiful and peaceful and interesting. Civilizations rise and fall and that’s just the way it is and if we’re lucky, they leave some remnants behind, and what’s left to see on Torcello is truly magnificent. Especially those churches...
So today, Torcello has a little grassy piazza where you can find the churches, a few restaurants, a famous five-star inn, and the museum. The rest of the island is farmland with beautiful green fields of artichokes, grape vines, goats and whatnot.You can see how green it is in the aerial view postcard above.
“A trip to Burano and Torcello will take up a whole day if you have not a motorboat to yourself, but a whole day spent in the lagoon will allow you to enjoy the infinite, varied, and incomparable beauty of the lagoon landscape, and give you the pleasure of several hours of complete freedom.”
Guilio Lorenzetti, Venice and Its Lagoon
More to come...