Ferragosto in the Lagoon: Secret Torcello

A walk along wild secret gardens (so refreshing!) on a far-off island in the Lagoon awaits you in this blog article, which I’m publishing in time for Ferragosto :-) It’s holiday week in Venice, and the number of tourists in town exceed every expectation. Yet, there are areas in Venice and the Lagoon that almost never receive visitors.

Their history is unknown and these places are so off “the beaten path” that tourists coming to Venice for a day don’t have time to go there anyway.

The walk we are taking today leads us to such an enchanted, far-off place.

Once a year, on 15 August, this lonely island wakes up from its sleepy existence, and its role is duly honored. One should come here more often, especially in April, when it is overgrown with rose and white tamarisk blossoms. When you arrive at the landing stage, an enchanted wood made of rose-colored blossom lies in front of you. Or come in October, and all these tamarisk leaves turn sunburnt golden and terracotta orange. If you are lucky, flamingoes have stopped here for ten days or so, this is one of their favorite spring haunts in the Lagoon. So it all looks very idyllic and quiet, but only few people could ever imagine that this place holds the key for the survival of Venice (We will explain in September).

All Venetians love this island, coming over especially in spring, autumn and late winter. So nice eating lunch in one of the leafy, cool restaurants. Our grandmother used to collect wild salad herbs here during the hard times of world war two, and grandfather used to come with friends, fishing in the quiet of the Lagoon, and hunting wild ducks in autumn. If that makes you think of the Venetian Lagoon that Ernest Hemingway loved, you are on the right path :-)

You still notice the different culture on the island, by the time you arrive at the first bend of the cobbled pathway leading farther inland. To your left, the ruins of the convent San Tomà dei Bogogni are located, and a little further ahead, what remains of the convent Santa Margherita. Beyond the tamarisk and pine woods on your right, the church San Zuane was built, and in the distance, amid the vineyards, you could find traces of the church of Sant’Andrea. Beyond the Cathedral, whose tower you can make out in the distance, the church of San Marco was built by a certain Rustego who brought the body of Saint Mark from Alessandria to Venice in 827 AD. You can read about Rustico in this article (Italian). The Cathedral dedicated to Virgin Mary (Santa Maria Assunta) was built in the year 639 AD. You will look for paintings in vain, the world of mosaics is coming to life here. And Virgin Mary is not depicted in the Catholic way. She holds Jesus in her arms in the Greek way, that is, in her left arm, while her right hand is indicating Jesus as redeemer and last resort.

Actually, the names I’m mentioning are from a map you can only envisage in your mind. Most of the buildings, convents and churches don’t exist anymore. All you can see is lush semi-wild gardens on your left, brimming with figs, pears, basil and rosemary shrubs, and in particular, pomegranate trees. A few readers asked us when the pomegranates are ripe in Venice, and where to see them: Come here in early October, the gardens turn golden and are brimming with brilliant red spots, the pomegranates!

It takes more than an hour from San Marco to reach this quiet oasis.

Today, the island is just one-third of its former size due to recurring shifts of Lagoon soil (subsidenza) and seaquakes. Four islands remain of the Lagoonscape the Romans and Greek saw, an archipelago consisting of 14 smaller and five larger islands. Together, they formed the northernmost and largest port on the Adriatic sea during Roman times. Romans and Greek merchants settled here, growing lush gardens, olive groves, vineyards, pomegranate and almond trees.

Flocks of sheep were living here on the salty grass of the wind-beaten meadows, separating pine woods from the open sea. Their wool was used for knitting indumenti (clothes) and soon, the island became the center of l’industria della lana, the wool production during Roman times. Woolen clothes and hats were exported north, via the network of canals and rivers crisscrossing the shores of the northern Adriatic Sea.

For a long time, this island hosted merchant communities, bishops, nobility and palaces, and even had a Grand Canal of its own. It held a special place in the Lagoon, due to its origins (it was first settled by merchants from Byzantinum, later called Constantinople). Its residents often helped save Venice from pirate incursions, and facilitated Venetian commerce in the Levant. There was one huge problem, though: The Lagoon, during Roman times, was fast becoming a swamp!

Only Il Taglio del Sile, deflecting the mouths of the rivers Piave and Sile in 1683, saved the Lagoon. Note: What saved the Lagoon in the 15th century laid the groundwork for today’s issues: The Lagoon is now on its way of becoming an arm of the sea, which is enhanced by digging big canals for ships to pass.

The engineers of the Republic of Venice succeeded in saving the Lagoon in general, but on this island, the situation had become really bad: Malaria broke out, brought on by the mosquitoes. At the same time, the Lagoon soil was shifting, embankments crumbled and some islands, such as Ammiana, disappeared under water. Ammiana was the second main island of this archipelago, and its fate induced the inhabitants to leave the area for good. Most nuns and monks residing on this island moved to Madonna dell’Orto, San Girolamo in Venice and to Murano, while the other inhabitants made the Venetian sestiere (district) Castello their new home.

This island is so far off the beaten path that its monasteries even escaped Napoleonic turmoil. The Austrians occupied Venice for more than 60 years, and thus had more time to “discover” the remote parts of the Lagoon: They even decorated the altarpiece of Santa Maria Assunta with golden baroque and rococo ornaments, which must have looked strange in a church built in Byzantine style. You can’t see these today, they were removed in 1939. The last make-over of the campanile (50 meters tall) was done in 1997, and in the image above, you can see what it looked like in 2013, when work was still in progress.

By now you will have guessed the name of this island. We are on Turricellum, today called Torcello, the Greek soul of La Serenssima. For 600 years, more than 50,000 people lived on this archipelago, and there were 80 convents! The “church” I mentioned is actually a cathedral,founded by the first bishop of Torcello, Paolo, who came here from Altino in 639 AD. He brought with him the reliquaries of the first bishop of Altino, Sant’Eliodoro, which are now buried under the altar.

As you can imagine, this is paradise land for archeologists, and for the second year in a row, Ca’ Foscari archeologists are doing summer excavations next to the church in a project called THE VOICES OF VENICE.

PS: The island Ammiana survived, after all. Miraculously, its eastern part called Sant’Ariano, resurfaced from under the sea, and so did its neighboring island, Santa Cristina, which was turned into a private resort with orchards and vineyards.

Of course, you don’t need to wait for Ferragosto to visit Torcello. There are bar-cafes lining the canal which leads you from the landing stage inland, or you might treat yourself to coffee at Locanda Cipriani. Here, Ernest Hemingway lived in the guest room on the first floor, and he was so fascinated by the ancient history surrounding him, as he told my grandfather in 1948.

If you want to visit Torcello on 15 August, take a look at the program here. There are concerts and a mass service in the afternoon, usually celebrated by the Venetian Patriarch. For those of you who have never been here, I’m sharing a video by Locanda Cipriani, and there’s more to see on their Instagram Page.

We will leave you for now with a plate of sweets from the island, and will be back on the blog in early September, with lots of news from us and more resources for visiting Venice responsibly!

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3 Comments

  1. Torcello is so beautiful. I love to visit it when in Venice.

    Posted 8.15.18 Reply
  2. Torcello is so beautiful. I love going there when I’m in Venice.

    Posted 8.15.18 Reply
    • Iris wrote:

      I understand so well that you love visiting Torcello!
      It’s been my favorite island since I was a child, when we went there with my father for the picnic on Easter Monday :-)

      Posted 8.15.18 Reply

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