Torcello: Santa Fosca

Santa Fosca, with the campanile of the cathedral in the background.

Why, someone might ask, would anyone want a church on Torcello to be right next to the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta? This is a fair question, a question that I myself have asked as well. Unfortunately, none of my travel guides could tell me why the lovely and elegant basilica of Santa Fosca was built less than a stone’s throw away from Torcello cathedral. When it was built, presumably in the eleventh century, thousands of people still lived on Torcello, so the need for an extra church on the island is easily explained. But why here, why not elsewhere?

The answer is probably that the church of Santa Fosca is part of a religious complex which comprises the cathedral, the church, the now ruined baptistery of San Giovanni and the former Episcopal palace. The church is actually connected to the narthex of the cathedral. The Santa Fosca is, furthermore, a martyrium, a centrally planned sanctuary to which the relics of a martyred saint have been translated. The church, on a Greek cross plan, indeed somewhat resembles other centrally planned churches that are often identified as martyria, such as the Santo Stefano Rotondo in Rome or even the San Vitale in Ravenna. I also noticed a few similarities with the small circular church of San Teodoro in Rome.

Church and cathedral, side by side.

The Santa Fosca, seen from above.

The Santa Fosca houses the relics of Fosca (or Fusca) and her nurse Maura, who were both said to have been martyred during the persecutions instigated by the Roman emperor Decius in 250. Both are fairly obscure martyrs, and if they can be considered historical (which I doubt), their killings reportedly took place in Ravenna. There is, however, a rival tradition that Fosca and her nurse were actually from Sabrata in Libya, and that they were martyred there. An African origin of both women is actually quite plausible (but again, only if they are in fact historical). In Latin, the word fuscus means dark or darkish brown, while Maura refers to the Mauri or Moors, a Berber people living in present-day Morocco and Algeria. We do not know exactly how and when the relics of Fosca and Maura ended up on Torcello, but the present Santa Fosca seems to have been constructed in the eleventh century, perhaps acquiring its definitive form in the next century.

The exterior of the church is simple. There is little decoration on the facade, but the church portico, which runs along the front and sides of the Santa Fosca, is elegant and charming. Outside, we also find a bas-relief from the fifteenth century depicting Saint Fosca and several of her followers venerating her.

Interior of the church.

A visit to the church of Santa Fosca is free. The interior is as simple as the exterior: this is clearly a place of worship, not an art repository. The marble columns inside are very nice though. Those looking for the relics of Saint Fosca can find them in a glass case below the altar.

In front of the church is a marble throne, presumably from the fifth century, which is known as the Trono di Attila. The notorious Attila the Hun invaded Northern Italy in the year 452 and destroyed Aquileia, one of the most important cities in the region. A local legend claims that Attila subsequently sailed to Torcello and sat in the throne that was named after him. However, it seems extremely unlikely that the King of the Huns – a nomad from the steppes with no naval experience whatsoever – ever sailed to the islands in the Venetian lagoon. The relative safety of the lagoon was, after the all, the reason why people fled to this rather uninhabitable part of Italy in the first place.

Trono di Attila.

The truth is that the throne has nothing to do with Attila whatsoever. It was a seat used by Torcellan magistrates for proclaiming local regulations and decrees. Nowadays the throne is a favourite seat for tourists for taking selfies. One seldom finds it unoccupied.

This post is based on many sources, among them my Trotter travel guide to Northeast Italy, a Dorling Kindersley travel guide to Italy, the wonderful website The Churches of Venice and the article about the church on Italian Wikipedia.

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