Torcello: The Rise and Fall of Venice’s Forgotten Rival

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Torcello from the Venetian Lagoon: The basilica and campanille

Torcello from the Venetian Lagoon: The basilica and campanille
Photographer: Natasha Sheldon

Today, it is hard to believe that Torcello was the mother of Venice, as John Ruskin once described it. Situated close to Burano, the tiny island was of the first in the Venetian Lagoon to be inhabited during the fifth century AD.

With time, Torcello prospered, becoming wealthy from trade. An opulent city developed with palaces and churches to rival those of Venice herself.

All that remains of that city today is a solitary plaza containing the Byzantine cathedral, church of Santa Fosca and the city council chamber. So what caused Torcello to decline while Venice prospered? And what are the hazards that face her today?

The First Settlement in the Venetian Lagoon

Archaeologists have found evidence for glassmaking on Torcello during Roman times. But it was not until the 5th century AD that the island was settled. The coastal cities of the mainland were increasingly harassed by the barbarian incursions of the Goths and Vandals. Roman cities such as Altinium began to look for suitable spots to relocate their entire population.

According to legend, a voice from heaven told Bishop Paul of Altinium to climb to the top of a nearby tower in the city. There, he was to follow the reflected path of the stars in the lagoon. This celestial pathway would lead him to the refuge for his flock. The stars led him to the island that became known as Torcello, named after the ‘little tower ‘that the bishop climbed.

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The Famous mosaics of Torcello’s cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta. Conservation work has halted their decay. Mosaic by Meister von Torcello.

A Rival to Venice

Torcello prospered. The nearby marshes were the source of a valuable commodity – salt – and the citizens of the new city began to extract and sell it. The position of the island, close to the margins of the Adriatic Sea, made it a perfect centre for trade. Soon Torcello was trading with the eastern Byzantine Roman Empire.

The island grew wealthy. Between the 7th and 10th centuries AD, it divided into ten parishes, each with its own churches, palazzos and palaces. Some of the city was constructed from stone rescued from the abandoned Roman cities, others based on its new-found wealth. The city was as beautiful and elaborate as Venice today. At its peak, it was home to 20,000 people.

Today, all that remains is one small palazzo. Here are the remains of the island’s 14th century council and archive buildings as well as the 11th century church of Santa Fosca. Nearby is the basilica and campanile of the byzantine cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the oldest surviving building anywhere in the Venetian lagoon.

The Remains of Torcello’s Glory

Although the city of Torcello is now gone, its one remaining palazzo contains some of the oldest remains in the lagoon islands. Built in 639 AD, the byzantine cathedral of Santa Maria dell Assunta was constructed from materials reclaimed from the mainland. Its baptistery lies in ruins, but the basilica and campanile, rebuilt in 1008 AD, are intact and open to the public. The basilica is famous for its luminous 12th century wall mosaics which depict scenes of the last judgment in gold and jewel-like colours. The campanile offers panoramic views of the island and lagoon beyond.

Within the same palazzo is the small 12th century church of Santa Fosca, and Torcello’s former council chamber and archives, which are now a small museum. All around are fragments of architectural features from Torcello’s past. Amongst them is the so-called throne of Attila, which is in fact all that remains of the chairs of the island’s tribunes.

The Church of Santa Fosca

The Church of Santa Fosca
Photographer: Natasha Sheldon

Torcello’s Decline

Torcello’s canals helped its rise. They were also the reason for its fall. The arteries of the island’s trade, the canals began to silt up as the residue of mainland rivers such as the Po began to build up in the lagoon. As the canals became unable to accommodate boats of any size, trade faded and shifted to Venice.

The shallow waters of these canals became the perfect breeding spot for mosquitoes. A devastating outbreak of malaria followed. For the survivors, this was the last straw. They abandoned Torcello for Venice. As their ancestors before them had done, they dismantled many of the buildings, taking the materials to their new home.

Opening Times

Interested in visiting? The Basilica di Santa Maria del Assunta is open from 10.30am – 6pm march to October and 10am – 5pm November to February. The campanile, which is accessible separately, is open from 10.30am – 5.30pm April to October and 10am – 5pm November to march. The museum is open 10.30-5.30 Mar-Oct and 10am – 5pm Tue-Sun, Nov –Feb.

Torcello Under Threat

What little remains of Torcello’s glorious past remains under threat today. The structures of the buildings, as well as the cathedral’s famous mosaics, are under threat of damage from groundwater, humidity and soluble salts in the lagoon waters. Fortunately, work by the World Monument Fund has halted the damage, ensuring that something of the mother of Venice remains.


John Julius Norwich. A History of Venice. (2007). The Folio Society.

World Monuments Fund. Santa Maria Assunta. (2013). Accessed September 15, 2013.

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© Copyright 2013 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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