Learn more about Torcello

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Last Judgement. 12th-century Byzantine mosaic from Torcello Cathedral.

Torcello is a quiet island at the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon. After the downfall of the 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 Germanic invasions and wars: During the following 200 years the Langobards 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 see for more than a thousand years and the people of Altinum brought with them the relics of Saint Eliodorus, now the patron saint of the island.

Economically, Torcello benefited from the formal status of a Greek colony and maintained close cultural and trading ties with Constantinople, but as a rather distant outpost of the Byzantine Empire it could establish de facto autonomy from the Greek metropolis. Torcello rapidly grew in importance as a political and trading centre: In the tenth century it had a population of at least 10,000 people and was much more powerful than Venice. Thanks to the lagoon’s salt marshes, the salines became Torcello’s economic backbone and its habour developed quickly into an important re-export market in the profitable east-west-trade, which was largely controlled by Byzantium during that period. Fortunately for the island of rivus altus (see Rialto), the lagoon around the island of Torcello gradually became a swamp from the twelfth century onwards and Torcello’s heydays came to an end: Navigation in the laguna morta (dead lagoon) was impossible before long and the growing swamps seriously aggravated the malaria situation, so that the population abandoned the worthless island bit by bit and left for Murano, Burano or Venice. It now has a population of around 60 people.

The former splendour of Torcello’s numerous palazzi, its twelve parishes and its sixteen cloisters has almost disappeared since the Venetians recycled the useful building material. The only remaining mediaeval buildings form an ensemble of four edifices: Today's main attraction is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639 and with much eleventh and twelfth century Byzantine work, including mosaics (e.g. a vivid version of the Last Judgement), surviving. Other attractions include the eleventh and twelfth century Church of Santa Fosca, which is surrounded by a porticus in form of a Greek cross, and a museum housed in two fourteenth century palaces, the Palazzo dell’Archivio and the Palazzo del Consiglio, which was once the seat of the communal government. Another noteworthy motif 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 it was most likely the podestà’s or the bishop’s chair.

One of the most famous fans of the island’s decayed and contemplative charm was Hemingway who spent some time there in 1948, writing parts of Across the River and Into the Trees.

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Coordinates: 45°30′N 12°25′Ede:Torcello fr:Torcello it:Torcello ja:トルチェッロ nl:Torcello no:Torcello


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