Associazione Guide Turistiche Venezia
Torcello is both the beginning and the end. It is the Alpha and the Omega
of the distant times of the early origins of Venetian culture, and the
most honoured and loved of the islands of the Lagoon. When in the 7th
century Venice was no more than a small group of muddy islands along the
course of the Rivus Altus, a deep channel that is now the grand Canal,
Torcello was inhabited. As archaeology is currently demonstrating, it
was probably already an island of peasant farms and harbour of the nearby
roman city of Altino. This infant Venice was, according to 'official'
history, born at the arrival of the Longobardi in Northern Italy at the
beginning of the 7th century. Fleeing from these warlike barbarians, who
were to maintain their control for several centuries, the inhabitants
of the decaying Roman city of Altino took shelter in the Lagoon, and under
the protection of Byzantium (Constantinople, still the capital of the
Eastern Roman Empire), which guaranteed them protection, they developed
Torcello as an important trading centre. In the process salt producers
and fishermen, rich and poor side by side, engaged in a constant battle
with the Lagoon and its alarming inclination to flood; they became an
amphibious people, at home amid the shifting channels and mud banks. By
the reign of the Eastern Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (905--59)
Torcello had become the principal hinge in Byzantine trade into Europe,
at a time when struggle for control of both the Eastern and the Western
Empire by the emperor and the Papacy was at its highest. Today
the island can count on no more than 11 inhabitants, a generous
natural environment and, incomparable child of Torcello's foundation and
rise to greatness, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta,
founded in 639 AD. The oldest building in the lagoon,
it is mercifully untouched by the depredations and 'improvements' of time.
It even survived the robbing of Torcello for building materials for the
new city of Venice, when the challenges of the Lagoon became too great
for the increasing size of trading vessels, which demanded a more accessible
port. A sad fate, but no more so than that of Altino, robbed to build
Torcello. It even managed to survive Napoleon, the only exception, with
the smaller Byzantine church of Santa Fosca
beside it, of the destruction of five other churches on the island. The
star of a visit to the Basilica must be the precious Venetian-Byzantine
mosaics of the Diaconicon and the Last Judgement,
with its scenes of the condemnation of the Seven
Deadly Sins, works of the end of the 11th century by Byzantine
mosaicists and described by experts as the most important in Italy from
this period. The sanctuary of the Basilica is also exceptional: the richness
of its coloured marble, the only example of a gilded pavement of which
only traces of the gold remain, a Roman sarcophagus
re-employed to house the remains of St Elidore; and outside the sanctuary
an apparently inexplicable pagan bas-relief of the god of luck, wings
and wheels on his feet. These notes are only a summary of what our visit
to the Basilica offers.
Basilica is what remains of its piazza, the little byzantine
church of Santa Fosca, a museum of both the
mediaeval and modern periods and the Campanile
- Belltower, a climb to the top of which, if at all possible, provides
a magnificent view of the north Lagoon and Burano;
not to be missed. From here George Sand wrote of 'le silence inconceptuelle
de la nature', and indeed, poised between the sky and the lagoon, gazing
over fields of artichokes and vines, some echoes of the island's ancient
past will inevitably be heard. It will offer, if you can manage it, ample
reward for the effort of the climb.
In the modern times Torcello has had famous pilgrims, many of whom are
recorded at the Locanda Cipriani, including
Queen Elizabeth, Churchill, Ernest Hemingway, Charlie Chaplin and many
others. Actually the Locanda Cipriani apart from
being a 'world class' restaurant and a very exclusive hotel is a leafy
oasis of peace and tranquillity. From the Locanda, Guidetovenice
will take you off the beaten track to explore other treasures of Torcello,
with a visit to a farm where the exceptionally tasty lagoon artichokes
are grown. Crossing the Ponte del Diavolo (Devil's
Bridge) we walk, surrounded by a landscape of incomparable beauty, to
the ruins of the Chiesa di Giovanni Evangelista.
Barely five miles separate the island from Venice,
but Burano is a world apart that has little to do with the chaotic Venice.
Even its dialect is soft and melodious in comparison to Venice's somewhat
sharp edge. To linguistic experts this is the sound of the most ancient
people of the Lagoon.
The island is famous for its lace and its brightly painted houses for
which many more-or-less fantastic reasons are contrived. Until 1900 half
of the economy derived from fishing and agriculture, while today it is
lacemaking and tourism that have restored the fortunes of Burano. Agriculture
has largely passed to Mazzorbo and Mazzorbetto, but some survives and
is a source of income for several families. Traditional
fishing is mostly for the tasty 'moeche', the soft-shelled crab of the
lagoon, and in April and October you will catch sight of fishermen dextrously
sorting them - and you can enjoy them in what gourmets consider the best
fish restaurants of the Adriatic. But Burano is not only known
for its fish and its lace. The parish church of
San Martino in Piazza Galuppi houses a magnificent painting by Gianbattista
Tiepolo, some 14th century paintings by Giovanni Mansueti and many
naive works depicting the popular traditions of saintly protection of
the island. Also in the Piazza is the interesting
Museum of Lacemaking recently refurbished, where you may admire
lace so light that it seems to be made of air. Burano is one of the major
lacemaking centres of the world, but is now sadly on the way to extinction.
However, a few elderly exponents of the craft remain and can be found
in the museum demonstrating it to visitors. Burano
and the nearby Mazzorbo, though much has changed, still succeed in maintaining
the atmosphere of the small Lagoon islands where their people still live
insulated from the haste of 21st-century world. Almost every family
takes to its boat as the rest of the world takes to its cars, and the
spontaneity of the people of these islands, the calm of their sunny waterside
and the energy of their brightly-painted houses reflect the lagoon in
which they live and which remains an inspiration to artists and writers
as it has for centuries.
The island of glass? Certainly, and much more.
Murano is Venice writ small. It has its Canal Grande, its Palazzi, its
thousand-year-old churches, but it also has its silence, perhaps lacking
in its big sister. An island of 5400 inhabitants with one identity, wrapped
around the industry that has given it a world-wide reputation for fine
glass-making. It has been so since 1291, when the Maggior Consiglio decided
to move the industry and its furnaces to Murano. Such furnaces were totally
banned in the city, a dictat derived from their constant danger to a city
largely built of wood.
The early history of glass-making in Murano embraces
a vigorous rivalry over who could make the clearest glass. By the end
of the 13th century the tradition of blown glass had triumphed over that
of cut and polish quarz, mainly due to the development of a mixture of
sands for raw material, a secret protected under threat of summary execution.
A visit to one of the many active 'vetrerie' (glassworks)
today is an unforgettable experience. But take note: to see a real
piece of work made by a real master of the craft one has to visit the
workshops during his working hours otherwise all you will see is the making
of some rather trivial piece. The essential accompaniment
to a visit to a glassmaker's is some time spent in the Museo Vetrario,
where samples of work embrace 20 centuries of history, from funerary
urns from Zara and Altino, to Briati chandeliers in paste glass, to the
modern works of Archimede Seguso.
But a visit to Murano does not end there,
anything but. The Chiesa dei Santi Maria e Donato
would be sufficient excuse alone. On ancient
foundations it was rebuilt in the Romanesque style of the 12th century,
only a few decades after the new Basilica di San Marco. It introduces
new elements that are not in the normal repertoire of the style, in some
ways reminiscent of the Roman city of Altino. (Note here that 'Romanesque'
is a mediaeval style derived in part from Roman architecture, but not
itself Roman.) You will be led into a positive zoo of real and mythical
creatures, all of which carry an eschatological significance (which will
be explained); it is an entrancing and vigorous bestiary.
Like the mosaics of Saint Mark's, it is on a fine tesselated pavement.
To add to the bestiary, during our visit you will see with your own very
eyes the bones of a dragon that Saint Donato killed by spitting at the
poor beast! Not to speak of Saint Alban's barrel, an inexhaustible source
of the most excellent wine! Strangely, not a tale told in his own country!
Leaving the mysteries of St. Donato behind, we make a visit to San
Pietro Martire. Although a church in full use, it is also a gallery
of precious renaissance canvasses, such as a portrait by Giovanni
Bellini of the rugged and contentious Doge Agostino Barbarigo.
Finally, a stroll along the Fondamenta Venier leads to the melancholy
and solitary church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, fronted by a rare stretch
of grass. It is today in a state of seemingly inexhaustible renovation,
but is probably best remembered for Casanova's gambols with some of the
younger members of its enclosed convent.