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The mysterious island of Torcello lies six miles north of Venice in the remote wastes of the Venetian lagoon.

On this now neglected island once stood a city as beautiful and splendid as the Venice we see today. Torcello was the original Venice and the first island in the lagoon to be settled, long before the present one was built. It was the original prototype for Venice which was discarded and left abandoned once the new Venice began to arise supremely from the waves after the tenth century. Today little remains of this mythical lost city, but its ancient Cathedral still stands, and within its walls remain a few tantalizing fragments of Torcello's original wonder and beauty: the Cathedral's exquisite mosaics.

The easiest way to reach Torcello is by taking one of the regular boat trips across the lagoon from Venice. Out here on the water provides the senses with a panoramic scene of wide horizons where sea and sky merge into a pool of rainbow like reflections. The light continuously shifts as if choreographed by magicians and it is easy to fall into a tranquil, hypnotic state, lost in a dream world of translucence.

Torcello is situated in the northern reaches of this mesmerizing landscape, in a wasteland of salt water marsh where sandbanks and muddy islets break the flow of dirty vegetation which festers amongst the limped water. It is difficult to believe that it was exactly upon such hopeless and uncompromising terrain that Venice was built and still stands. In the midst of this dormant hinterland a large tower rises up from an island of green bushes and vegetation. It is the indomitable ancient tower of the Santa Maria Assunta, the cathedral of Torcello, an isolated token of civilisation placed in the centre of this empty natural waste land.

Torcello's origins are founded on a series of mystical revelations which suggests that Venice was initially intended to be a kind of New Jerusalem. The people of the lagoon were originally from the Roman city of Altino which came under threat in the 5th century from barbarian invasion. As the Germanic hordes from the north approached Altino, many of the residents fled in blind terror. But some did not panic and run away. A discerning group of people with enormous faith devoutly stayed under the leadership of Bishop Paul, who resolutely stood his ground until he received divine guidance .

Seemingly, the heavenly advice led to this uninhabitable region of marsh and mudflats becoming their most unlikely home. But it proved to be the perfect strategy to pursue; it was the ideal location from which to hide from the barbarian savages who found it impossible to hunt for them in such difficult terrain. The refugees established themselves on one of the larger islands and they named their new home Torcello, which translated means "Tower and Sky", in memory of their multi - towered birthplace, Altino. The first thing they did was build a beautiful church dedicated to the Virgin Mary incorporating many precious marbles. Already the future Venice was being manifested.

In this manner, began the creation of a stunning and glorious city under the most extraordinary circumstances. Soon churches and buildings began to grow from the marshy islands and mudflats through the ingenious skill and practicality of this amazing race of people. Torcello developed into the greatest commercial centre in the lagoon, full of palaces, churches and even a grand canal. The city was then as beautiful and ornate as the Venice we see today.

CREDIT: Wikimedia+Viator2=GrahamUK
CREDIT: Wikimedia+Viator4=GrahamUK

CREDIT: Wikimedia+Viator4=GrahamUK
CREDIT: Wikimedia+Viator=GrahamUK

Sad to say, no towns or villages exist on Torcello now, and today the island is a verdant wilderness of fields and marshes. With its former glory long since lost, there remains only a few houses here, dotted about amongst the overgrown meadows, and an atmosphere of wistful sorrow pervades the empty island. With its rustic, decaying appearance the island has been left in some other worldly limbo of tranquil silence.

There is only one route available to take on the island which is the path from the landing boat which follows the appealingly neglected canal with its abundance of green wilderness. This leads to the Santa Maria Assunta, the cathedral, which is the main focus of the island, and here the atmosphere takes on a haunting austerity. Despite its decaying appearance, this is a place of great dignity. The ghosts of those early settlers still seem to inhabit the cathedral instilling a feeling of respect and sense of wonder: a lonely monument to their remarkable achievements.

CREDIT: Wikimedia
CREDIT: Wikimedia Commons = Ricci Speziari

The miracle is that it has somehow survived. It was built in 639 in the Byzantine/Roman style with a rather plain exterior and its most arresting feature is the tall campanile which continues to stubbornly dominate the island. The interior of the cathedral is also sparse except for the mosaics which are incredible. These remarkable works date from the 11th century and reflect the strong Byzantine influence on the art of the early Venetians. The oldest of these mosaics are in the chapel next to the High Altar and depict angels carrying a medallion with the Lamb of God.

But the most affecting mosaic is from the 13th century which covers one of the walls in the apse. Here the Madonna with child is shown with her hands raised in prayer and tears falling from her face, below which is a frieze of the apostles amongst flowers upon a golden floor. It is perhaps the simplicity of the scene which makes it so moving and only adds to the endearing melancholy of the island. Unlike the mosaics of St Mark's Cathedral in Venice, which glitter and sparkle with life, these are simple but exquisite, instilling quiet reflection and meditative peace.

In contrast to the simple beauty of the Madonna mosaic is the great tour de force which covers the whole of the west wall: a tremendous mosaic featuring The Last Judgment. Against a gold background a myriad of figures are vividly brought to life in a riot of colour and movement, with those who are saved sitting righteously above while below the dammed are burned and tormented.

CREDIT: Wikimedia+Viator6-GrahamUK

Next to the cathedral is the little church of Santa Fosca which should not be overlooked. This simple but charming Romanesque construction provides the setting for romantic traditional Italian weddings which seem to be discreetly open to public view. In Venice it is so easy to casually become part of some intimate and private ritual. It is the custom in Venice for brides to travel to their weddings standing in a gondola and this charming tradition can be witnessed here, if you are lucky enough, where a lovely young bride in a ravishing wedding dress may possibly be seen moving gracefully along the canal.

Other Islands in the Lagoon:


But there are other islands to be encountered out here in the hypnotic light and space of the lagoon. Burano, a simple little fishing community, is a picturesque delight with a warm and welcoming spirit. In sharp contrast to the haunting austerity of Torcello, this island has a lively and joyful atmosphere. It is a delight to walk around its quaint little streets which resemble a miniature toy town Venice, with its network of canals and tiny bridges intersecting the colourful houses. The whole island is so tidy and ordered with each house brightly painted with contrasting colours. All is kept clean and precise giving the streets a pristine and immaculate sheen.

The island is relatively unspoiled with a natural charm, and it is still possible to experience authentic, traditional Italian life here. There are visitors to Burano but the island is largely untouched by the mass tourism which dominates Venice. The residents are friendly and gregarious, leaving the isolation of their homes to share the streets with one another, filling the town with an exuberant, joyful, hubbub.

Wandering around in the afternoon may bring you into contact with some of the older women who sit outside their home stitching. Burano is famous for its lace-making which was financially important for the island in the 15th and 16th centuries and the traditional art is still being practiced today out on the street for the public to see.


PHOTO CREDIT: Both Photos-Wikipedia = Son of Groucho

CREDIT: Wikipedia = Both Elod

The island of Murano is a plainer version of Venice with a similar network of canals and bridges. Most people visit the island to see the traditional glass blowing, but there are some beautiful churches which are worth exploring. In former times the glass blowers were highly privileged workers but their prestige came at a price--they were prevented from ever leaving the lagoon for fear that the secret of Venetian glass-making would be lost.

The San Pietro Martire can be found along the central canal of Murano, a lovely church which dates from the 14th century, containing some splendid paintings by Veronese. There is also the magnificence of the Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, considered to date from the 7th century. It is one of the oldest buildings in the lagoon and thought by many to be one of the most beautiful in the whole Venetian territory.

But perhaps the real jewel of the lagoon is not so much the islands in themselves but the quality of light which, out in the open water and away from the city walls, really takes centre stage. The whole scene--the sea, the blue of the sky and the soft, drifting clouds over the obscure islands--is a canvass of luminous colour. It is radiant, dream-like and unique to the world. And then there is the chance to see Venice from another perspective and wonder in awe at this precarious miracle, shimmering in the distant haze, as insubstantial as a dream.

Useful Facts:


Torcello can be reached from Venice by either Public Transport or Private Water Taxi.

Public Transport - A regular waterbus service (operated by ACTV) is available from the following boarding points : -

No 12 Waterbus from Fondamenta Nuove

No 14 Waterbus from San Zaccaria near St Marks

Private boat tours of the lagoon are also available.

Torcello is one of three islands normally visited by tourists, along with Murano and Burano, which provides a day's outing. However a special 3-hour tour is also available. Murano is nearest to Venice and is famous for its glass making, while Burano is a delightful fishing village community.

Venice is served by Airport and Railway Station. Venice can be reached by direct express trains from most parts of Europe. Airport: Marco Polo International Airport, 8 miles from Venice. Transfer to Venice by boat or bus.


Most people visiting Torcello stay in Venice but limited accommodation on Torcello itself is available at Loconda Cipriani, the Restaurant Inn Bar situated on the island.

Loconda Cipriani: Address: Piazza S. Fosca, 29; 30012, Torcello, Venice, Italy.

Telephone: (+39) 041 730150



Cathedral: Daily from 10.00am--12.30pm and 2.00pm--6.30pm. Admission charge. There is a separate charge for entry to the campanile. It is a steep climb but provides magnificent views over the island and lagoon.

Museum of Torcello: close by the church, it shows the history of Torcello. Admission charge. Opening times: Tuesday--Sunday, 10am--12.30pm and 2pm--6.30pm

Author Paul Millward has written a book about his explorations of Venice and the surrounding islands. It is available in electronic form:

"Finding God in the Celestial City"

For additional information, contactPaul Millward at -