14.2.11

The Lost Grandeur of Torcello

10 December 1894 - Torcello, Italy

Torcello Island
Today I visited the sleepy hamlet of Torcello, an island on the north end of the Venetian Lagoon, only a few miles from Venice. It is hard to believe this sparsely populated island once was larger than Venice itself.

Back in the fifth century when folks began to flee the mainland to get away from invading Huns, Torcello was the first island they settled. For the next two hundred years the Ostrogoths Atilla had stirred up, kept pillaging the mainland, driving more and more natives to this refuge. By 568 the Bishop of Altino moved his see here and would stay here for a thousand years.

Torcello became a trading center, much more powerful than Venice, in the 10th century. At Torcello’s height, it’s population was 20,000. However her days were numbered. By the 12th century the lagoon around her had filled with silt, becoming swamp. She became useless as a harbor and the marsh became a breeding ground for malaria. People fled to Venice, Murano, Burano and other islands in the lagoon. They would return to salvage building material from the growing ghost town. Only four medieval buildings were left untouched.

Swamps around Torcello
One of those buildings was Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta built in 639. It has had a lot of additions form the 11th and 12th century. It has several beautiful mosaics inside. The Last Judgement dates from the 13th century and was inspired by one at Ravenna.

Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta

Last Judgement mosaic at Santa Maria
There is also the more modern 12th century Church of Santa Fosca, and two palaces, thee Palazzo dell'Archivio and the Palazzo del Consiglio. All the rest of the once great city is all gone. In it’s place are farms and meadows.

Church of Santa Fosca
There are a few more modern inns on the island, built for the Venice tourist trade that began in the 18th century. Some folks come here to get away from the bustle of crowded Venice. I understand Ernest Hemingway will spend some time here in 1948 writing. Of course he won’t be born for another five years.

The natives like to point out a couple of things the scavengers left. There is a stone chair they call Attila’s Throne. I happen to know Attila never even visited Torcello. It most likely was carved for the Bishop.

Attila's Chair
There is also Ponte del Diavolo or the Devil’s Bridge, a popular name for medieval stone bridges.

Ponte del Diavolo
The 11th century Bell Tower attached to Santa Maria Assunta is worth the climb, despite the steep steps. They didn’t charge me too much for the privilege and I suppose they need the money for upkeep.

View of Torcello from the Bell Tower
The island is also covered with remnants of the ancient city the natives didn’t cart off with them. It’s a bit like an Easter egg hunt, wandering about through the fields and lanes looking for the ruins left behind. Even though it is early December, the day was sunny if cool, perfect for hiking. I had a grand day of it. I hated to leave on the last ferry. I daresay, I can see why Hemingway fell in love with lovely Torcello.


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