Old maps and photos

Torcello’s geography has been determined the continuous presence of populations in the lagoon islands shaping the natural landscape in a very specific way. To better understand this aspect, we can consider the conditions of the Torcello archipelago during the modern age, as it is shown by a series of exceptionally beautiful maps from Venice's archive illustrating the archipelago's geophysical and anthropic conditions between the sixteenth and nineteenth century.

To better understand the entanglement between people and water, also, we can use 19th and early 20th century photos and videos. The landscape is not only a setting where the settlement took place, but it also appears how much distinctive was the culture of water, wood, and mud as cultural significance in defining an ecosystem that is fading away. 


Benoni Iseppo, 1670, ASVe Savi ed esecutori alle Acque, B. 525, d.9 

Lagoon area. Mazzorbo, Torcello and Murano Islands

An interesting view of the entire Torcello archipelago, drawn in 1694, is preserved at the State Archives of Venice, among the maps made by  the ‘Savi ed Esecutori delle Acque’, one of the most important institutions of the Republic of Venice, assigned the task of controlling the excavation of the lagoon canals, the development of the banks and access to the port inlets.  The map includes the islands of Burano, Mazzorbo and Torcello, and a single glance is enough to understand how, in the past, these islands were perceived as a single body; this perception was not due to the reciprocal vicinity of the islands themselves and the raised salt marshes, but to the circularity of the waters. In fact, in a culture that conceives boats as the only means of transport, water is not an element of division, but of union


Proto Gufo Rizzardo, 1604 (copy of 1660), ASVe, Miscellanea Mappe 318

San Gerolamo Nunnery, Venice. Map with the properties in Torcello around S. Angelo in Zampenigo (Torcello)

The map preserved in the State Archive of Venice, drawn by Andrea Benoni in 1660 and based on a previous drawing from 1604, is one of the exceptional representations of how a cartographic document can describe the use of land and soil in the past. The map identifies the location of the convent of Sant’Angelo in Zampenigo. The existence of convent is proved since the 13th in archival documents. As early as the beginning of the 15th century its assets flowed into the properties of the nearby Sant’Adriano di Costanziaco monastery, which – in the middle of the 16th century – also joined with the San Girolamo monastery in Venice.

The northern island of the Torcello archipelago is also shown in the map. Some buildings are depicted at the centre of the map, i.e. the church, probably a monastery structure and a well. This section of the drawing seems to identify a desire to give a ‘realistic’ representation of the buildings, although in simplified form. 


1, Benoni Antonio, 1679 ASVe, Savi ed Esecutori alle Acque, Relazioni, b. 1, d.1
2,3 Filippini Giovanni, 1739, Savi ed Esecutori alle Acque, Relazioni, b. 3, d.15 and 17

San Antonio Nunnery Area, Torcello, 1679-1739

A series of cartographic documents describes the island further south of the Archipelago, dominated by the presence of the convent Sant’Antonio Abate. The island is the most detached and isolated in the lagoon. However, in the Late Middle Ages (probably) and in the Modern Ages (definitely) it was connected to the area of San Marco and Santa Maria Assunta by a dam/bridge.

The island of Sant’Antonio in the 13th century was chosen as a retreat for some Benedictine nuns from San Cipriano apud Mistrina (today Mestre), on the mainland. The assets of this community were combined with those of the monasteries of ‘San Filippo e Giacomo di Ammiana’ and ‘Santi Giovanni e Paolo di Costanziaco’ as early as the 14th century.
A drawing from 1679 (Antonio Benoni, ASVe S.E.A. Reports, envelope 53, drawing 1) describes the courtyard of the convent, its rear facade and a beautiful bell tower topped with a cross. The drawing was produced in order to report the instability of land belonging to the nuns behind the monastery itself, where an entire corner was ruined by the ingression of currents and therefore had to be filled with lagoon mud from the excavation of nearby streams.
Another impressive drawing from 1739 (Giovanni Filippini, ASVe S.E.A. Reports, envelope 3, drawing 15) shows the area overlooking the monastery’s canal: here we can see the cavana (a covered dock for boats) along with the stone bank, a second cavana and a pier that seems to have become, at the time of the drawing, unusable due to progressive filling of the surrounding marshes. These cavanas tend to fill quickly with sand, as also confirmed by a later map that depicts the same area


Domenico Margutti, 1690, ASVe, Savi ed esecutori delle Acque, Relazioni, b. 140, d. 5

Borgognoni Canal, Area between Torcello and Mazzorbo

A drawing dated 1693 provides evidence of the lagoon environment's quick transformations: to verify the navigability of the Canale dei Borgognoni and to establish where the mud originating from the excavation was to be placed, the expert Domenico Margutti produced an accurate drawing attaching it to the project report. The whole of the canal was ‘perticato’, i.e. its depth was measured with all measurements reported on the map in Venetian feet. The poor navigability of the canal was rendered with high precision, supported in the report by the numerous testimonies of the ‘burchieri’ (i.e. the carriers) operating in the Treviso area: they complained about no longer being able to access Burano and the Treporti inlet freely due to the sand and mud banks.
The drawing also indicates the place where the Torcello mud was ‘repositioned’, corresponding to the current area from which the waterbuses depart.

Last update: 20/08/2019