The Torcello island, or rather the Torcello archipelago, is an iconic site for archaeologists. The results of the numerous archaeological campaigns conducted since the end of the nineteenth century had a resonance that far exceeded the lagoon's boundaries. Torcello is considered the cradle of Venetian civilization, a view shared both by Middle Ages historians and Venetians alike.
Yet Torcello must have been teeming with people in the past. There must have been many homes, businesses, and craftsmen. The coast must have been dotted with the masts and sails of docking ships. There must have been many churches. This is the landscape depicted by ancient chronicles. The abundance of people and resources is reflected in the details and richness of the Santa Maria Assunta mosaics.
We have come to know of the island's fame thanks to a famous passage by an exceptional historian, Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, emperor of the Byzantines. In his De Administrando Imperio, he refers to Torcello as an Emporion Mega, in other words a large port, and central trading hub between East and West. From the time of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, through subsequent chronicles and the all-important archaeological rediscovery of the island between the 19th and 20th century, Torcello emerges from history to become an actual physical location, and the very birthplace of Serenissima.
The abandoned island inspires a sense of lost glory. It has been written that it was not abandoned by chance, but was a calculated choice to make the Serenissima's magnificence shine even more. Thus the demise of Torcello, according to the famous work by Elizabeth Crouzet Pavan, may have been planned by Venice itself, which starting from the 9th century became the new emporion mega, the new city for trade.
Torcello inhabits a timeless space in the collective imaginary, wedged between two myths, on the one hand founding the lagoon settlements by Roman nobility fleeing from barbarian invasions, and the other of its decline, which like all abandoned sites evokes in visitors the romantic sense of a lost Arcadia, with its ‘ruins’ and ghosts. From the top of Torcello’s bell tower one can enjoy perhaps the most beautiful view of the entire lagoon; as in Ruskin’s famous passage, just one glance is enough to take in the lands and barena salt marshes around Torcello and the bell towers of Venice: ‘mother and daughter’ he wrote ‘you behold them both in their widowhood.’
The first question that many visitors ask when they first arrive is, ‘Where is everybody gone to? What happened to the buildings, the bridges, and the city? How can the splendid mosaics and marbles of the Basilica fit in an empty and remote stage?’
Last update: 15/06/2021