Torcello is an island in the northern Venetian lagoon. It was one of the oldest and most prosperous settlements in the lagoon, until the decline following the predominance of nearby Venice and the changing environmental conditions. The island has priceless archaeological heritage it still preserves makes it a very popular tourist spot.The island is small and entirely walkable. The cathedral, museum, and inns are a 10 to 15-minute stroll down Fondamenta Borgognoni, a path along the canal, from the vaporetto stop.
As with other lagoon centers, in the past it was believed that Torcello got its name from a door in Altino. Torcello was first settled in the year 452 and has been referred to as the parent island from which Venice was populated. It was a town with a cathedral and bishops before St Mark’s Basilica was built.
Located immediately north of Burano, it is located in the center of an area of sandbanks, bounded to the south-west by the Borgognoni canal-Burano canal, to the south-east by the Sant’Antonio canal and to the north by the Torcello canal; to the north and east it borders the marshes of the Rosa and Centrega.
It is connected to the Adriatic Sea by three inlets. Being located at the edge of a closed sea, the lagoon is subject to large variations in water level, the most visible of which (especially in autumn and spring) cause phenomena such as high water, which periodically floods the lower islands., or shallow water, which sometimes makes shallower channels impracticable. To facilitate navigation, the lagoon canals are marked by rows of poles: the bricole.
After the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, Torcello was one of the first lagoon islands to be successively populated by those Veneti who fled the terra ferma (mainland) to take shelter from the recurring barbarian invasions, especially after Attila the Hun had destroyed the city of Altinum and all of the surrounding settlements in 452.
Although the hard-fought Veneto region formally belonged to the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna since the end of the Gothic War, it remained unsafe on account of frequent Gothic (Sarmatian) invasions and wars: during the following 200 years the Lombards and the Franks fuelled a permanent influx of sophisticated urban refugees to the island’s relative safety, including the Bishop of Altino himself. In 638, Torcello became the bishop’s official seat for more than a thousand years and the people of Altinum brought with them the relics of Saint Heliodorus, now the patron saint of the island.
Archaeological campaigns conducted at the beginning of the 1960s have shown that there was a settlement in Torcello since the first centuries of the Roman Empire, in the same period in which the nearby city of Altino flourished. After a “pause” in the 5th – 6th centuries, coinciding with a phase of natural disasters (Rotta della Cucca), the population of the island resumed vigorously in the 7th centurywith the realization of some reclamation and embankment works (pile dwellings, terracing, hardening), which directed the town towards an urban structure. Moreover, traces of orchards and vineyards date back to the same period, as well as of a glass workshop, which show a certain liveliness also from an agricultural and technological point of view.
These findings confirm what is reported in a (disputed) inscription identified on a wall of the Cathedral, which would testify that the construction of the church dates back to 639, by Maurizio, magister militum and Byzantine governor of Venetia et Histria (with headquarters in Torcello), according to the will of the exarch of Ravenna Isaac and under the auspices of the emperor Heraclius I.
In pre-Medieval times, Torcello was a much more powerful trading center than Venice. Thanks to the lagoon’s salt marshes, the salines became Torcello’s economic backbone and its harbour developed quickly into an important re-export market in the profitable east-west-trade, which was largely controlled by Byzantium during that period.
Torcello benefited from and maintained close cultural and trading ties with Constantinople: however, being a rather distant outpost of the Eastern Roman Empire, it could establish de facto autonomy from the eastern capital.
The island formed, together with the nearby Mazzorbo, Burano, Ammiana and Costanziaco, the bridgehead of the Venetian trade towards the Adriatic Sea and was so flourishing that it had thousands of inhabitants. In the 11th century the cathedral was rebuilt, flanked by the new church of Santa Fosca, and until the 14th century Torcello was the main wool processing center in the Duchy of Venice.
The city had its own nobility and was governed by two councils, one major and one minor, flanking first the ducal steward and then the mayor. Someone has asserted that the inhabitants of the island in its heyday were fifty thousand
The Black Death devastated the Venice Republic in 1348 and again between 1575 and 1577. In three years, the plague killed some 50,000 people. In 1630, the Italian plague of 1629–31 killed a third of Venice’s 150,000 citizens.
A further serious issue for Torcello specifically was that the swamp area of the lagoon around the island increased by the 14th century, partly because of the lowering of the land level. Navigation in the laguna morta (dead lagoon) was impossible before long and traders ceased calling at the island. The growing swamps also seriously aggravated malaria.
As a result, by the late 14th century, a substantial number of people left the island for Murano, Burano or Venice. In 1689, the bishopric transferred to Murano, and by 1797, the population had dropped to about 300.
Following the unstoppable decline, the buildings fell into disrepair, or were dismantled to provide bricks and building material for the building development of Venice. Despite the disappearance of the city, the diocese of Torcello, even if transferred to Murano, survived until its suppression in 1818. At the same time, the cathedral became a simple parish, with jurisdiction over various locations in the northern lagoon. The island now has a full-time population of just 10 people, including the parish priest, according to some sources and only 12 in 2018.
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 environs. 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.
Torcello’s numerous palazzi, its twelve parishes and its sixteen cloisters have almost disappeared since the Venetians recycled the useful building material. One small palazzo is the only remaining medieval structure, consisting of a cathedral, a church, the town’s former council chamber and archives (which house the museum), and the nearby basilica and campanile; the latter two were rebuilt in the year 1008.
Today’s main attraction is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639. It is of basilica-form with side aisles but no crossing, and has much 11th and 12th century Byzantine work, including mosaics (e.g. a vivid version of the Last Judgement). Other attractions include the 11th and 12th century church of Santa Fosca, in the form of a Greek cross, which is surrounded by a semi-octagonal porticus, and the Museo Provinciale di Torcello housed in two fourteenth century palaces, the Palazzo dell’Archivio and the Palazzo del Consiglio, which was once the seat of the communal government.
The basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, formerly the cathedral of the suppressed diocese of Torcello, was restructured in its present form around the year one thousand. Unique feature: it consists of large windows with shutters made of stone slabs. The western wall, corresponding to the main entrance, is occupied, inside, by a Byzantine-style mosaic of considerable size representing the Last Judgment, at the base of which there is a praying Madonna, a motif that also characterizes the apse of the basilica of Santi Maria e Donato in Murano.
The church of Santa Fosca, which dates back to the 12th century, has a Greek cross plan and a portico with marble columns and capitals that incorporates the architectural motif of the interior. Greek cross churches are very rare and are a symptom of the Byzantine cultural domination, which Venice underwent between the 9th and 12th centuries.
In the open space facing the two sacred buildings, also bordered by the Palazzo del Podestà, seat of the Provincial Museum of Torcello, there is the so-called ” Attila’s throne “, more likely a seat reserved for magistrates in charge of administering justice.
Another noteworthy sight for tourists is an ancient stone chair, known as Attila’s Throne. It has, however, nothing to do with the king of the Huns, but may have been the podestà’s or the bishop’s chair, or the seat where chief magistrates were inaugurated. Torcello is also home to a Devil’s Bridge, known as the Ponte del Diavolo or alternatively the Ponticello del Diavolo (devil’s little bridge). The Ponte del Diavolo, which spans an internal canal, retains the characteristic shape without parapets, an original feature of all Venetian bridges.