Torcello Island And The Cathedral Of Santa Maria Assunta

FULLY UPDATED ON 19/03/2021

Please Note: All information in this post is pre-pandemic. While many countries have begun welcoming tourists back, do be aware that the situation can change quickly. Please review and follow latest travel advisories before finalising any plans. You can find information regarding the conditions of entry into Italy here.

Torcello is where the story of Venice began. That story, along with the 7th century cathedral and the exquisite Byzantine mosaics that Torcello is famous for, makes it a memorable addition to any Venice itinerary.

The story makes compelling reading and the extraordinary chain of events, starting with the 5th century sack of Italy, makes one consider how much Venice owes Atilla the Hun!

Think about it: If that ‘barbarian’ hadn’t torched the Roman city of Altinum, if 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  and hadn’t followed divine diktat to seek refuge in those islands instead of in Ravenna or Istria like most other refugees before them, there would be 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*.

Close-Up of the moss covered statue of Santa Maria on top of a pedestal in front of Torcello Cathedral

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 degeneration of their lifeblood – the lagoon – into a malarial swamp, demanded yet another exodus. Less than twenty people call Torcello home today. 

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 Byzantine mosaic murals

THE BYZANTINE MOSAICS OF TORCELLO


Torcello Mosaics: The Mother Of God Mural on the apse. © Remi MathisCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On the east end is the altar and dome dominated by the gilded mosaic of the ‘Mother of God’ or the ‘God Bearer’ mosaic. Beneath her, in a single concave row, are the twelve apostles standing on a field of poppies.


Torcello Mosaics: The Doomsday Mural on the opposite wall from the apse. © ZaironCC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The mosaic at the west end, referred to as the ‘Doomsday Mosaic’, is the more striking for its extremely graphic depiction of the Last Judgement where Satan and his demons torment the souls cast into hell, while Christ is shown leading the saved to heaven.

The figure of Satan as an elderly bearded man is believed to be the second oldest known illustration of Lucifer in the world and closer in imagery to the Biblical version of the fallen angel rather than the cloven-hoofed and horned depictions of later Christian art. 

These murals, although considerably simpler and less prolific, were still far more appealing to me than the splendour of Saint Mark’s even!

Significantly, both cathedrals 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.

Lone girl sits on pedestal in front of the Church Santa Maria Assunta.
  • Sign Bard of Church of Santa Maria Asunta
  • Santa Fosca, Close Up with the virgin's sculpture in the foreground.
  • Ruins of the 7th century baptistry
  • Sculpture remnants near the museum
  • The smaller 11th century church of Santa Fosca
  • The Ponte del Diavolo, one of only two remaining in Venice that don't have guard-rails.

*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

*Numbers vary from 10,000 to 50,000!

PLAN YOUR DAY-TRIP TO TORCELLO

Seated Couple In Torcello

HOURS AND ADMISSION FEES TO THE CATHEDRAL OF SANTA MARIA ASSUNTA

HOURS

From 01 Nov to 28 Feb: 10.00 – 17.00. Last admission: 16.30
From 01 Mar to 31 Oct: 10.30 – 18.00. Last admission 17.30.

FEES

Cathedral Santa Maria Assunta: €5 (€7 with audioguide, most handy for those interested in the symbolic details of the mosaics), Museum: €4 (Museum and Cathedral: €9 and including campanile is €10, but be sure to check museum hours beforehand). Church of Santa Fosca: Free.

BEST TIME TO VISIT TORCELLO

Summers are over crowded. Spring and fall are the best times to visit.

Ideal time of day is early morning or after the departure of the lagoon tour groups around mid afternoon. I took the 5 min ferry ride after a picnic lunch on Burano and returned to Venice on the last ferry.

Torcello cathedral is a 15 min. walk from the landing pier. You should re-confirm vaporetto return schedules if you do not want to be left stranded on the island overnight.

Allow 2+ hours for the visit including the walk each way and a climb up to the campanile.

MURANO & BURANO DAY-TRIP

If you wish to combine all three islands in a long day trip: Start at Murano, then head straight to Torcello post lunch (or reserve a table at the Locanda Cipriani), visit Torcello cathedral in the afternoon and return via Burano. Burano’s vivid colours are best photographed in evening light.

HOW TO GET TO TORCELLO

The no.12 vaporetto (Water Taxi) connects Venice to Torcello from the Fondamenta Nove station via Murano and Mazzorbo. It continues on to Burano from Torcello.

I got off at Burano and then took the no.9 onward to Torcello. The no. 9 only plies between these two islands and takes 5min.

FARES: A single vaporetto journey is pricey at €7.50. Travelcards for the duration of your stay are a much better option. My 7 day travelcard was most useful for island hopping. If not opting for the multi day card, I recommend a 12 hr travelcard at €18.00 if combining Burano with Torcello or a 1 day card at €20.00 for all three islands.

Children below six travel free. Wheelchair bound passengers only pay 1.50 per single ticket and caregivers/attendants travel free. More details here. And here’s the timetable.

Remember cards/tickets need to be validated at machines at the departure stations. Failing to do so will incur a fine of €60.00 in addition to the price of a single ticket.

WHERE TO STAY & EAT IN TORCELLO

Locanda Cipriani (where Ernest Hemingway was supposed to have stayed while he wrote “Across The River And Through The Trees’) and Ca’ Torcello are the best options if you want to stay overnight.

EAT: There are a couple of small restaurants midway on the path to the church. Osteria Al Ponte del Diavolo and Locanda Cipriani are pricier options and might require prior reservation. I didn’t eat in Torcello, so cannot vouch for either.

VENICE ON YOUR RADAR? 📌 PIN FOR LATER

Did you know Torcello, Italy, is the place where Venice began? That's the reason Torcello island, along with its 7th century cathedral and exquisite Byzantine mosaics makes a memorable addition to any Venice itinerary. Read full story along with top tips tips on how to plan a great day-trip that can include Burano and Murano.
#torcello #island #travel #venice #italy #photography #travelguide #traveltips
All you need to know before you visit Torcello island, Italy, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta and the exquisite Byzantine mosaics it is famous for. The tranquil island where the story of Venice began, makes for a wonderful day-trip from Venice and can be combined with Burano. 
#venice #italy #traveltips

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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

78 thoughts on “Torcello Island And The Cathedral Of Santa Maria Assunta

  1. An interesting post Madhu. It is compelling to think that the history of a country was affected by certain events.

    1. And that those events, however devastating, were probably for the best….for the survivors at least, but mostly for their descendants! These stories never fail to intrigue me 🙂

  2. I’d like to think this is a lovely coincidence, but I’ll be heading near about there next weekend and had a day free … 🙂 I’ll be referring to your post then .. maybe stop by in Torcello then.

    1. Great! Might be a bit of a detour if you are there on a very short trip…..the journey takes over an hour, one way. But well worth it. Look forward to your perspective Paritosh. Have fun 🙂

  3. What a dreamy place, Madhu, and with such an amazing history. Your first image is beautiful. I love the old bridge. It looks quite hazardous, but I suppose that guard rails would ruin the look of it. Great post. 🙂

    1. I believe there are many ‘devil’s bridges across Europe Sylvia! Am not able to find out why they are called that though! The hazardous look might be it 🙂

  4. I love Torcello. It is so different from the rest of Venice. I see you managed to sneak a photo inside the church. I did on my first visit, but there were serious guards last time I went. The mosaics are breathtaking.

    1. They truly are amazing! I hadn’t realised photography wasn’t allowed, because everyone else was clicking happily on their cellphones!! 🙂 Thanks for the pingback Debra.

    1. Thank you Meredith! I loved Torcello. I was disappointed that the campanile was closed, I would have loved to have captured a panoramic view from the top.

  5. Torcell, is such a serene and adorable little island, you captured it very well, Madhu, love the picture of the Diabolo brigde, which by the way, diabolo means devil. I have been long long time ago.

  6. Dear Madhu,

    Lovely post indeed! I, too, have been to Venice, but I had no idea of what exquisite beauty I had missed!

    Thank you so much for allowing me a glimpse of such history. Perhaps when I wend my way there in the future I will partake in all its infinite charms.

    Take care, and thank you for sharing your lovely writing with the world.
    Paul

    1. The charms of Venice are indeed infinite! Hope you do return in the near future. Appreciate your visit and comment Paul.

  7. The Ponte del Diavolo is a beautiful bridge. I loved that and many of the other stunning photos that you took. When our eldest daughter was here today, we looked at several of your posts on Venice. She can’t wait to see it in person. 😉

  8. A fascinating and beautiful post as always, Madhu. 🙂 Strange how the twists and turns of history can create cities that seemingly defy logic. It seems poignant (and fitting, in a way) that the birthplace of Venice is now so empty and desolate. I’m glad its 1,300-year-old church has survived the ravages of time!

    1. The ‘what ifs’ are very fascinating James. I am glad too, that the eleventh century restorations preserved the two churches at least. Loving your Flores series!

  9. Sad that the once great Roman Empire self destructed to the point that an uneducated rabble was able to destroy what had taken centuries to build up. Do we see shades of that in our so called Western Civilization today? Will cultural edifices be destroyed again and people retreat to their islands of safety as the next civilization commences?

  10. This is my first proper visit to your elegant blog. I’ll be back! You’ve given me the beginning of my Venice itinerary for my next en-route-to-Warsaw jaunt. Good to know that you can escape tour crowds. I love the colours of the bricks, and the “spare, unadorned beauty” of the cathedral. I also like your imaginative and atmospheric take on history. How long did you spend in Venice?

    1. Welcome Meg! And thank you for the kind words. I had a whole week this time, and it was my first solo trip! I could have easily stayed another week 🙂

  11. Next time when i take holidays I need to ask you to DESIGN .. yes a DESIGN a holiday for me 🙂 lovely post again and some info and pictures lovely

    1. I assume not everyone loves the back stories as much as the visuals Lynne, so I need to liven them up a bit. The balancing takes time though. Thank you for the appreciative words. They mean a lot 🙂

  12. I can’t thank you enough for the perspectives you offer with your lovely photography Madhu. I look forward to each and every post!

  13. You are such a superb tour guide Madhu! As for pressing Publish by mistake, oh my God I live in fear of pressing the wrong one but you have no reason to worry!

    1. Oh I do Patti, there seem to be more glaring typos and mismatched sentences when I inadvertently press publish than otherwise! Must be Murphy’s Law or some such thing 🙂

  14. This is not only my favorite places, he did enjoy visiting last year. I have no words to explain the beauty of this region. There is one saying “Paradise”

        1. Explore your unique pages – and it will take us explore around the world. I was a tour director and travelling around the world for me like a second university.

  15. Your opening photo is my favourite, Madhu. That moss wrapped statue is wonderful in the foreground. 🙂 We caught an early morning vaporetto out to Torcello and virtually had the place to ourselves, but that was a long time ago. Thanks for the illicit mosaic shot too. I’m sure we must have taken photos but they’re long gone. Just the memories linger.

    1. I can imagine how much more special it must have felt then Jo. I have very few photos from our early travels to Greece and Spain as well. But the memories are still vivid!

  16. Lovely photos Madhu. Your opening line is awesome. Thanks for sharing that piece of history. Didn’t know about it.

    1. Thanks Kan. Just a matter of changing perspectives. I doubt Atilla’s victms, the ones that didn’t get away, would agree though!

  17. History is fascinating, in a way for good or worse – but it the only past we have… 🙂

    Your photos and writings made by curiosity and genuine interest makes it even more interesting… 🙂

  18. That first photo is spectacular, Madhu, but I love all of them. Again so much to learn from your post. Thank you for all the valuable information. I am glad to see your visit was so thorough. 🙂

  19. Venice and her sister islands are beautiful, but their layout AND history can be confusing. Your post provided clarity and some interesting tidbits. I enjoyed it very much!

  20. You should write professionally. The images you conjured up in my mind are wonderfully colorful not to mention educational!

  21. Wonderful write-up and lovely photos! I’ve been to Venice (did not like it much) but missed Torcello.. perhaps that will make me go back to Venice some day.

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