The story of Ombriola and her forgotten rosemary shores

Ombriola is the name of a forgotten island in the Lagoon … but wait. Imagine having an island all to yourself. It’s a rather big one, solid without those wetlands and marshes that really can get on your nerves, whose shores can be fortified easily with red bricks and wooden poles. No need to start from scratch and build a brick platform floating on wooden poles for your home in the midst of the Lagoon, On Ombriola, the shores are rather solid and her soil is overgrown with wild herbs loving the salty environment. There’s rosemary, nettles, wild hops and bruscandoli mostly. Ombriola is located in the midst of a group of islands looking out toward the South East to where a mighty sandy barrier overgrown with pine forests shields the Lagoon from the open sea.  Low nettles and reeds must be cleared on the island but are left on the edges to prevent the soil from shifting. Around the little wooden church built in the 6th century there’s plenty of space to grow vineyards. The northern shores of the island are populated with rosemary bushes used for medical purposes and to cook aromatic fish.

Apple, pear and cherry trees are planted alongside vines that the women working in the gardens had learnt to grow and tend from the Romans. Ombriola’s inhabitants are from Altino looking for permanent safety amongst the shores of the Lagoon. (Altino was a Roman city located on the northern edge of the Lagoon – click here to see more). First, they moved to Torcello but late a few moved further towards the center of the Lagoon to a group of 118 natural islands that ran on both sides of the mouth of a river. These islands were less windswept and exposed to the tides and rather solid. So different from the marshlands they had encountered at the brink of the Lagoon. Here they felt safer from the enemies who had overthrown the Roman Empire. Ombriola became their ideal place to build their new home and life. They had come to stay and appreciated the fertile grounds and mild climate of the Lagoon.

The people of Altino were not alone in the Lagoon. Their trading partners (and perhaps ancestors ??) lived here too. These were tradesmen from Byzantium, deeply preoccupied because of the wars in Europe and the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD). At that time, the expats from Byzantium were looking for a safe place and trading post from where they could monitor what happened next in these unstable times of migrations.

This is how Ombriola became the ancient heart and soul of Venice. From here towards Rialto, a chain of islands and canals would lead the way to the market, and boats and rafts and laden with fruit and vegetables slide along the winding canals every morning. But first, there was much work to do with regard to bonifica. Working the land, growing plants and herbs and in the 5th century AD, a group of women, daughters of noble families, took up work on that project. The Dux (later, he would be called Doge) founded a monastery for them and gave them money to have a church built. The nuns did exceptionally well growing local herbs and vegetables like asparagus and peas and onions and soon also sweet peas. Vegetables like fave (beans) that could be dried and used for hearty winter soups called spezzati.  The first zucche (squashes) were also grown on this ground and the island of Ombriola became the center for growing vegetables in new town.

Boats from Byzantium landed on the southern shores of Ombriola, and all the tradespeople, ambassadors and government officials made their homes here. In a short time, many traders and small businesses moved here and opened boteghe (little artisan stores) selling food, every day and luxury goods. The island became quite crowded, drawing Venetians from other parts of the Lagoon as well. Yet, the nuns of the monastery wished peace and quiet and a place to retire where they wouldn’t be disturbed by the trespassers in their vegetable plots and vineyards, both locals and visitors.

Thus, they divided their island in two halves and kept the bigger one. They built a brick wall around their portion of the island and dedicated it to growing fruit, wine, herbs and vegetables. Outside, a major trading area with delicatessen stores and taverns developed, and there were still more than 90 stores located in 1797 when the Venetian Republic came to a brutal halt. Before retiring into their own church and walled monastery garden, the nuns had a little church built outside the wall and paid two priests to take care of the parishes and travelers outside. This church was built in the 8th century AD and was completely destroyed in 1809 by the French occupiers. Yet the nuns made it in time, saving the main altarpiece and had it brought to their own church hiding safely behind the walls.

The rosemary hedges are just a mild reminder of this verdant past of Ombriola, and I admit that whenever I walk along the northern shores of this island, I still look out for them and have been doing so since I was a child :-)

Can you guess how the island of Ombriola is called today ? Hint – rosemary means osmarin in Venetian. If you’re unsure, just click here to find out ! You’ll also find pictures of what Ombriola looks like today !

More stories will be online soon !