August 13, 2012

Torcello: The True Pearl of the Lagoon

Torcello (Venice), Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral

You don’t need to be a globe-trotter, or at least a passionate lover of Venice and its surrounding lagoon islands, to know or have heard about Torcello. You just need to have read Ernest Hemingway’s Across the River and Through the Trees, which he wrote during his stay there—at the famous Locanda Cipriani, which after that became a literary legend along with the island of Torcello itself, to which the great American writer devoted whole pages of his novel. Yet, if you want to learn more about the true pearl of the lagoon you need a more in-depth description…, so hence the post below, a guest post from Silvia, a 25-year-old young woman from the Venice area. She is graduated in Conservation of Cultural Assets and has a great passion for her field. I welcome her aboard and wish her all the best for the future. Have a good read! (Rob)

Torcello: Discovering the Fascinating Past of the Cradle of Venice
by Silvia Bressani

Located in the northern section of the Venice lagoon, the island of Torcello is an oasis of peace and tranquility where one can spend a day dedicated to art, mystery and nature, away from the crowds of tourists who descend on Venice every day.

This mystical and highly spiritual place is alluring and mysterious, imbued with breathtaking views surrounded by lush vegetation and permeated by an atmosphere laden with history, art and ancient traditions. Nowadays it is almost completely abandoned, yet Torcello still proudly displays the signs of its glorious and doomed history: after being a reference point for the entire Venice lagoon it unwittingly became the victim of Venice’s expansion.

The origins of the island were, for a long time, subject to speculation and only in recent times it has been possible to date the first settlements back to Roman times. The numerous archaeological excavations have in fact unearthed a Roman settlement, in which remains of fishermen shacks have been found next to some suburban mansions for the noblemen on the mainland.

Between the 5th and 6th century A.D. Torcello became one of the main destinations for the inhabitants of Altino, a flourishing diocese on the mainland abandoned following the Longboard invasions, who transferred numerous spiritual items and treasures to Altino, amongst them the remains of the first bishop in AltinoSt Eliodoro.

According to tradition, the name Torcello derives from of one of the ancient dwellings of Altino, probably a gate or a guard tower, which was used by the inhabitants of the unlucky city to remember their homeland.

A famous inscriptionhoused inside the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta—can also be dated to this period. It contains a reference to the naming of the Torcello Cathedral in the 7th century, and is therefore testimony of the inclusion of Torcello under the influence of the Byzantine empire.

Thanks to the development of metallurgical, hand-crating and commercial activities, the island and some neighboring settlements became in a short time the main centre of the Venice lagoon. The period of highest splendor occurred between the 10th and 11th century, both from an economic and artistic point of view, with the construction of the bell tower and the rebuilding of the cathedral with the architectural structure which can still be admired.

From the 15th century, a serious of concomitant factors started to unsettle the thriving life in Torcellothese being the first signs of an unstoppable decline. In a few decades diseases and expanding swamps, combined with a rising sense of apathy towards the maintenance of the city - due to the allure of Venice that was seen as the futureturned Torcello into an inhospitable and insalubrious place. A slow and excruciating decadence ensued in Torcello, increasingly affected by flooding and houses being demolished to provide stones for the construction of Venice.

Nowadays Torcello still enshrines traces of its epic past, thanks to a few monuments that have stood through the centuries and are now the main destinations of visitors: the Devil’s Bridge, the Attila’s Throne, the Santa Fosca Church, the bell tower, the Civic Museum of Torcello and the ancient Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.

Dating from the 12the century, the Devils’ Bridge is one of the few remaining Venetian bridges retaining the original feature of not being equipped with parapets. The origin of the bridge’s name is still unknown, perhaps deriving from a local family or born out of ancient legends.

The so-called Attila’s throne, possibly the seat of magistrates of justice or the bishop, is located in the square surrounded by the most important buildings of the island: the church of Santa Fosca, rebuilt in the 12th century to house the remains of the martyrs Fosca and Maura; the high bell tower, dating from the 11th century; the Civic Museum of Torcello, housed in the rooms of the Council and the Archives, with a vast collection on the history of the island, the lagoon and the origins of Venice itself; and finally the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.

Built following the orders from the Ravenna Exarch after the transferal of the episcopal seat from Altino to Torcelloand rebuilt in the 11th century to the present day appearancethe Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta is a place of profound spirituality and a building with deep artistic and religious significance which houses one of the most important mosaics in Northern Italy.

A significant example of Venetian and Byzantine style, with a a basilica plan divided into three naves, the cathedral is a true art masterpiece and contains splendid marble columns topped by beautifully decorated capitals, intricate floor drawings with multi-coloured segments, architectural decorations and sacred ornaments. The most suggestive elements of the cathedral are represented by the extraordinary mosaic with a gold backdrop in the main apse, depicting the Virgin Mary with child and the Last Judgement mosaic entirely covering the counter façade.

To visit this extraordinary cathedral and truly understand its fascinating atmosphere balanced between art and faith, Veneto Inside offers a tour of the Torcello Basilica and its secret itineraries which includes a visit to two areas only recently opened to the public: the crypt and sacristy. Inside the crypt it is possible to admire the ancient brickwork of the mediaeval basilica, whilst the sacristy enshrines several stone elements dating back to the 9th century and a mysterious roman sarcophagus, which is believed to have housed the body of Mark the Evangelist before the famous Venice Cathedraldedicated to his namewas completed.

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