Venice owes thanks to Atilla the Hun.
Think about it…if the ‘barbarian’ hadn’t torched the Roman city of Altinum, if some of the residents of that great city hadn’t been directed by a disembodied voice to climb their lofty campanile and seek help from the heavens above, if they then hadn’t spied the distant group of islands on the lagoon from that tower, and if they hadn’t followed the divine diktat to seek refuge in those islands instead of in Ravenna or Istria following most other refugees before them, there would have been no Serenissima to sigh over.
Six of the new island refuges commemorated the famed gates to the fugitive’s ransacked home on the mainland: Porte Majorbium (Mazzorbo), Porte Boreana (Burano), Porte Muriana (Murano), Porte Torcelleus (Torcello), Porte Amuriana (Ammianco) and Porte Constantiacus (Constantiacum) . And so it is that the names of the portals live on*, while the glorious Altinum has been lost to time.
Of the six marine settlements, Torcello emerged the most dominant with its own cathedral and a campanile that mimicked the one they had left behind. Boasting a bishopric from the fifth to the fifteenth centuries and a population of nearly 50,000 at its zenith, with direct links to Constantinople. But the parallel development of the wealthier Venice after the relocation of the Doge to Riva Alto, and the silting up and degeneration of their lifeblood – the lagoon – into a malarial swamp, demanded yet another exodus. Less than twenty people call it home today.
The poignancy of Torcello’s history and its desolation makes it a compelling inclusion in any Venice itinerary even if there is not too much to see. Especially if you can (you must!) linger long enough to allow for the departure of the lagoon tour groups around mid afternoon. Of the two surviving relics from its days of urban glory, the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta (639AD), the oldest church in Venice, is breathtaking in the spare, unadorned beauty of its architecture, and its two stunning eleventh century mosaic murals. Far, far more appealing to me than the splendour of Saint Marks even!
Significantly, both are indicative in their very essence, of the circumstances that prompted their construction…..the former, in fear and humble gratitude for the refuge this land afforded, the latter, as a proclamation of power and glory of an empire that the island spawned.
- The islands of Ammianco and Constantiacum have been swallowed by the sea.
*The outline of an ancient Roman city buried beneath crop fields on the mainland near Venice, and believed to be its ancestor city, Altinum, has been mapped in detail for the first time with the aid of aerial photography
- Varies from 10,000 to 50,000!
Getting there: The no.12 Vaporetto now connects Venice to Torcello from the Fondamenta Nove station via Murano, Burano and Mazzorbo. I got off at Burano and then took the no.9 onward to Torcello, returning directly on the 12.
Admission: Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta: €5 (€7with audioguide), Museum: €3 (All three combined €8 but check museum hours beforehand), Church of Santa Fosca: Free.