This is the tale of two islands, or rather, two realities, one superseding the other. You have just arrived on Torcello, walking the short distance from the vaporetto stop towards the sprawling grassy piazza around which the landmark sights of Torcello are grouped. That is, what is still visible today of this island’s landmarks. Two ancient churches, several homes turned into museums, an antics store, the archeological zone and of course, there’s also Locanda Cipriani.
You are greeted by the scents of freshly mown lawns and elderflowers. Walking along the winding path following the canal, you are looking for shade while watching the wild duck family on the other side of the canal. You can hear blackbirds sing and cicades chirp. The cherry tree looks inviting to your right and the acacia trees are in full bloom. The air smells of wild jasmine and ancient roses. The sun is incredibly bright and rather blinding to your eyes. To fully take in Torcello, you must focus on its details.
At least now in summer, the “sights” along the Canal Grande di Torcello look colorful. The houses are painted in red and the wooden fences are emerald-green. The porous facade of the little house to your left is sparkling in the sun and the wild gardens and their pomegranate trees, lilies and rosemary bushes are all blossoming.
But there are also curated gardens belonging to the restaurants lining the canal. I can’t resist and enter one of these gardens stretching far behind the house painted in rosso venexian. There are vegetable plots with artichokes, an olive garden and several flower beds. The gardens gradually merge with wilderness and scattered rose-colored brick foundations appear, overgrown with reeds thriving on the marshy soil. These are the relics of ancient churches and monasteries …
Forgotten stories. Buried to the left of the Basilica della Assunta is one I’m going to tell you in a moment. Torcello is an excellent place to learn how to read history. Every pillar, every wall merits a second look and could tell century-old tales.
And then, there’s another island reality. Imagine arriving on a Byzantine cog in the year 400 AD at Portus, the forgotten harbor at the entrance of a Lagoon. While your boat is being moored and the luxrious goods such as ceramics are being unloaded, you change to a flat boat to reach the island of Sant’Antonio which is part of a thriving merchant community boasting 100 churches and 50,000 inhabitants.
This community is located on a group of islands called Turricellum (Torcello) in the northeastern part of the Lagoon, about 11 km from the Rivo Alto islands (Venice). It’s a second Venice, so to say, inhabited since 500 BC and home to the sprawling and luxurious Roman villas mentioned by Marco Valerio Marziale in his poems written in the second century. But then, Torcello was home to Byzantine merchant communities as well.
When the inhabitants of Altino moved into the Lagoon, they brought bricks from their buildings to Torcello. They used the bricks of the tower in Altino and in 460 AD built a cathedral which they dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta. So if you want to know what the buildings of these forgotten times looked like, take a very close look at the bricks of the cathedral !
Torcello was also the home of Rustico da Torcello. In 827, Doge Partecipazio ordered Rustico and Bon da Metamauco to bring home from Alexandria (Egypt) the relics of a Patron Saint for Le Venetiae, as Venice was called in those days (a plural noun indicating that the Lagoon consisted of several, rather independent communities). And perhaps the body of a hero and mythical god with whom the fledgling Republic loved identifying, a thesis currently examined by historians and archeologists (If that case was verified, we’d have a sensation to write about in this Blog !!). For now, legend has it that they brought the reliquiae of Saint Mark to Venice. And Rustico built a forgotten church, La Chiesa di San Marco on the lawns to the left of the Cathedral. Today, it’s “just” a lawn but could be turned into an archeological site any moment.
What happened to Torcello, its merchant -noblemen, farmers, fishermen, churches, palaces and monasteries? By the 12th century, Venice became the center of the Lagoon communities and “commercial hub”. Torcello’s conditions became unbearable also because the river mouths brought debris into the Lagoon. Sand banks formed and the area became extremely swampy and unhealthy (mosquitoes!). Gradually, Torcello’s inhabitants left and went to Venice or Murano. Officially, the monasteries on the island existed until 1810 when the nuns moved to Murano during the French occupation.
Perhaps it’s food that connects the two realities of the dreamy and sleepy Torcello of our times and the thriving merchant town of the past. Vegetables also grown on Torcello centuries ago and for which the island was famous. First of all, asparagus, wild herbs (my grandmother says, there are 11 varieties of them), onions and also zucca (squash) and its smaller, longish relative, zucchina (courgettes).
These are the ingredients of a favorite dish, perhaps the signature dish of Torcello today. It’s the risotto alla primavera, first prepared by Giuseppe Cipriani when he bought the locanda on the island in the 1930s. It’s a simple risotto all’onda bringing out the incredible flavors of Lagoon vegetables. Primavera means spring in Italian but actually it stands for “seasonal”, so you could prepare and taste this dish in any season.
The main characteristic of this recipe is that the rice must remain “white” and must not take on any color. You have to choose your ingredients carefully and tomatoes are permitted only in tiny amounts so not to color your risotto. Never use eggplants, they might tint the dish blue-green. The recipe was invented to use up chicken broth left from preparing chicken dishes at the locanda.
Taking into account these basic tips, you could now prepare your own variety of this risotto or look up the original recipe in Harry’s Bar Cookbook.
If you would like to explore Torcello and its surroundings, do take a look at the website of Centro Studi Torcellani. They offer guided tours and you can also order quaderni torcellani – a book series detailing the story of Torcello (Italian only). Another wonderful source is the website of Paolo Andrich.