Torcello: Birthplace of Venice

At first glance, you probably wouldn’t be able to see the island of Torcello from Venice’s tallest landmark, the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco. You may not have even heard of it. It’s there though, almost as far out as you can go across from the popular islands of Burano and Murano. Taking a water bus there will take about an hour and a half and is on the popular route that links Murano to Burano. Few tourists will get off there.

A Brief History of the Quiet Island

It’s hard to imagine that Torcello was once the most populated area in the Venice lagoon with over 35,000 residents. The first thing I noticed when I stepped off the vaporetto was how strangely quiet it was. A small map of the island and its few landmarks is the first thing you see along with a single path running along a canal that leads to the center of the island. Plants and vegetation along the sides of the path and water transport you back to the time.

Torcello was first settled in the early 452 by people fleeing the attacks of Atilla the Hun. In the following 200 years more and more refuges fled the mainland after the Gothic War to the relative quiet and remote safety of the island. As the population grew, so did the importance of the church. Torcello became the seat for the Bishop and until the Black Death devastated the Venetian Republic in the 1570s, it was one of the most important trade and commerce centers in Europe.

Sickness continued to ravage the population of Torcello. As a result of this and lack of available land due to rising swamp levels, traders and merchants visited Torcello less and less. The people of Torcello relocated to Burano, Murano and Venice where the commerce was; the bishop followed the population movement to Murano and eventually Venice. By the 1800s the population was a ghost population and remains so to this day. As of 2018 there is a full time population of about 20-30 people.

Why Visit the Island?

My first response is to this question is to see what Venice was like in its early days. My personal main reason was to see the Church of Santa Maria Asunta and Church of Santa Fosca. They are two of the only surviving buildings of medieval Venice. I had read in guide books about the beautiful Byzantine mosaic art murals inside the buildings and wanted to see them for myself.

When I reached the first sights of civilization at the end of the footpath, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Signs for the Provincial Museum of Torcello will point you down a path out towards several farm houses. This wasn’t something I had a lot of time to see, but I have heard good reviews about it from a Burano cafe barista I spoke to later in the day. I wanted to be ambitious and also see Murano and Burano in six hours.

I walked until I reached the only bridge on the island, the Devil’s Bridge. Local legends say that the devil built it in one night and in a hurry. The bridge makes for a nice pause and moment to capture some pictures of the main piazza of Torcello. I particularly enjoyed viewing the architecture of the area. In summer, you can probably expect to find a few souvenir stalls here.

Just before reaching the churches, I was surprised to find two restaurants and one hotel. I didn’t think the island would have more than one restaurant. There were a total of 3 on the island! As tourism is the only source of income on Torcello, if you are looking for a place to eat, why not consider dining at one of the 3? I found their prices were about the same as on Murano and Burano.

Upon reaching Santa Maria Assunta and Santa Fosca, there is another Museum of Torcello you have three ticket options. You can buy a single ticket, a combination ticket for to see the church and museum or a combination museum, church and bell tower ticket. If you have time, do all 3. It was close to closing time so unfortunately, I couldn’t see the museum.

Santa Maria Assunta and Santa Fosca

I opted to walk through Santa Fosca first. It is the more modern of the two churches and is free to the public. No photography is allowed in either of the two churches as they are both still actively used. Santa Fosca was very open and is more impressive for its marble architecture on the outside. It looks very much like every other Catholic church.

Exiting to the side, you reach the ticket office for Santa Maria Assunta. If you intend to hike to the top of the bell tower, I would recommend doing that first before seeing the church. I missed the last entry to the top, but have been told the view up there are pretty impressive. I bought a ticket for Santa Maria Assunta for 4 Euros and was warned again to photos allowed.

The golden 12th century mosaics in the apse of Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello.
Image of the Madonna and CHild inside Santa Maria Assunta taken from Reidsitaly

It was dark and really cold inside, but immensely impressive. The foundation dates back to the 600s, but the art inside to the later 11 and 12th century. The walls are decorated with beautiful mosaic art. The back wall of the Madonna and child was my personal favorite.

The last judgement art on the back wall is also covered in a thin gold leafing like the image on the right. You can tell how rich the Venetians were at the time and how much attention to detail that put into their art. Imagine hand creating each mosaic image with thousands of pieces of stone.

When you finish visiting the inside, you can walk around the exterior and once again take in the original architecture. In the front courtyard of the church I had no idea why there was a stone looking chair a few other tourists were sitting in. Walking up to it, I was told it was “Atilla’s Chair”. If you sit in it, you will return to Torcello one day.

Image result for atillas chair torcello

Overall Thoughts

Torcello is one of the places in Venice any history nerd, like me, should visit. Even if you only have a half an hour, I would encourage you to take the 5 minute boat ride from Burano to get off and walk the promenade from the dock to the center of town. It will take you about 8-10 minutes, but its well worth it to at least see the exterior of the buildings.

I enjoyed my time on the island and found it peaceful to see the sleepy collection of buildings. I only wish I had more time and had been able to check out the museums! If you go, bring a jacket, the island can get really chilly. In summer, I would highly recommend mosquito spray. Being a swamp land it attracts them like nothing else! Until next time, happy travels!