When discussing the early history of Venice, we should always keep in mind that settlement in the Rialto archipelago – now the nucleus of Venice – did not start in earnest until the early ninth century. Before that time, the Venetians were scattered across the lagoon and lived on various islands, Torcello being a particularly important one. This is hard to imagine nowadays. Only a handful of people still live on the island and it looks virtually deserted. Yet Torcello once had a population of thousands, many of whom left the island from the fourteenth century onwards as the climate in this part of the lagoon grew ever unhealthier, with malaria becoming endemic. Torcello also used to have about a dozen churches, of which nowadays a mere two remain: the Santa Maria Assunta or Torcello Cathedral discussed here, and the basilica of Santa Fosca right next to it. Both are quite charming and an excellent reminder of Torcello’s grand past.
To get to Torcello, take Vaporetto 12 from the Fondamente Nove. Both of my travel guides informed me that Vaporetto 12 goes to Burano, where tourists must change to Vaporetto 9 to Torcello. However, when I visited Venice in July 2017, Vaporetto 12 took me straight to Torcello, so maybe the timetable is different during the summer. If you arrive early, you may have the cathedral all to yourself (note that it does not open until 10:30). There are half a dozen restaurants on the island, including the hideously expensive Locanda Cipriani. For good food at reasonable prices, I recommend Ristorante Al Trono Di Attila.
History of the cathedral
The history of Torcello is closely connected to that of Altino on the mainland. Altino was first overrun by the Huns in 452 and then again by the Longobards in 568, causing many of its inhabitants to flee for safety in the lagoon. These migrations were at first temporary, with people returning after the barbarian storm had subsided. Later they became permanent. A prosaic legend relates how bishop Paulus of Altino was commanded by a voice from Heaven to climb the stairs of a nearby tower and look at the stars. The stars showed him the way to an island in the lagoon where he and his flock should settle. This was the island of Torcello, or ‘little tower’. Whether or not there is any truth in this legend, we do know that Torcello soon became a prosperous commercial centre. The predecessor of the Santa Maria Assunta was founded in 639 and the Diocese of Altino was moved to Torcello just a year or a few years later. The cathedral was enlarged in the ninth century and then again in 1008. It is the early eleventh century basilica that we can admire today.
The original basilica was founded on the orders of Isaac, the Exarch of Ravenna (625-643). The Exarchate of Ravenna, of which the Veneto was a part, was basically a province of the Eastern Roman Empire, which had retaken this part of Italy from the Ostrogoths in the sixth century. The Exarch was the highest regional magistrate and representative of the emperor in Constantinople. Isaac’s name has been recorded on an inscription which can now be found to the left of the altar of the cathedral (a picture of the inscription can be found here). The inscription is difficult to read, especially because it uses abbreviations that nowadays only specialists can decipher. Its message, however, is clear. The inscription refers to the 29th year of the reign of the Eastern Roman emperor (Augustus) Heraclius (610-641), which is the year 639, and refers to the original name of the basilica, the Sancta Maria Dei Genetrix (Saint Mary, Mother of God). The magister militum Mauricius and the bishop Maurus are also mentioned in the inscription.
As stated above, the basilica was expanded in the ninth century, with dates of 824, 826 and 864 being given, depending on the source. The cathedral was again enlarged and embellished in 1008, when Orso Orseolo, son of the Doge Pietro II Orseolo (991-1008) and brother of the Doge Otto Orseolo (1008-1026), was bishop of Torcello. Orso was promoted to the rank of Patriarch of Grado in 1017, and although the appointment was politically motivated, he certainly deserved a promotion for the fine basilica that he has left to posterity. Orso’s project also led to the cathedral being reconsecrated as the Santa Maria Assunta, a name that it has kept until the present day. The Santa Maria Assunta lost its formal status as a cathedral in 1818, when the Diocese of Torcello was suppressed.
Exploring the cathedral
In front of the cathedral are the ruins of a baptistery, which – like many baptisteries – used to be dedicated to Saint John the Baptist (San Giovanni). The cathedral, the baptistery, the church of Santa Fosca next door and the bishop’s palace used to be part of one and the same religious complex. The facade of the Santa Maria Assunta is entirely in brick and features no decorations. Note that admission to the cathedral is not free; visitors have to buy a ticket, while a separate ticket is required for climbing the freestanding campanile, which can be found directly behind the basilica. Visitors are regretfully not allowed to take photos inside the cathedral, and this “no photo” policy is zealously enforced by the staff. Fortunately, several people have uploaded photos to Wikimedia Commons, so it is possible to get a glimpse of the interior of the Santa Maria Assunta before making the long trip (ca. 50 minutes by boat) from the Rialto to Torcello.
The Santa Maria Assunta is deservedly famous for its fine mosaics, which mostly date from the twelfth and thirteenth century. They were restored on several occasions – the tesserae have a nasty tendency to come off after a while – and this was not always done competently. The restorer Giovanni Moro, who worked on the mosaics between 1852 and 1858, was even sued and convicted for making a mess of the huge mosaic of the Last Judgment (Giudizio Universale) on the counter-facade. Instead of restoring the figures in that mosaic, he simply substituted their heads with copies made by himself. This is a pity, as the Last Judgment is by far the most spectacular mosaic in the cathedral.
The name of the mosaic is a bit of a misnomer, as the mosaic has six registers, of which only the lower four concern the Last Judgment. The first register shows the Crucifixion, with Christ flanked by the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Evangelist. The second register is about a resurrected Christ rescuing Adam, Eve and many others from Limbo. The two huge angels on either side of the register were clearly redone during Moro’s nineteenth century restoration. They are imposing, but look out of place because of their modernity. The four lower registers pertain to the Last Judgment proper. When I bought tickets for the basilica and the campanile, I got a free audiotour. This proved to be really useful, as the narrator told many interesting things about the details of the mosaic, details that the untrained eye might easily miss. I especially like the images of Hell, which are truly haunting. We see a black-skinned Satan with a white beard and white hair. The Antichrist is seated on his lap, while clergymen, kings and infidels are consumed by the flames. It is clear that these images were meant to educate (or indoctrinate) medieval Torcellans, most of whom would have been illiterate.
The mosaics in the central apse are also quite interesting, though less educative. The conch of the apse has a Madonna and Child against a splendid golden background, with the Virgin wearing a beautiful blue maphorion. Below her are the twelve apostles, with Saints Peter and Paul most easily recognisable (although it looks like Peter has dyed his hair; it does not match with his white beard). On the triumphal arch is a mosaic of the Annunciation. The left apse was undergoing restoration when I visited the cathedral, but it seems to be only of modest interest. In the right apse, however, we find another wonderful mosaic, this time of Christ the Pantokrator, the “Ruler of Everything”. He is flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Below him are four Doctors of the Church.
The Santa Maria Assunta still possesses a fifteenth century iconostasis, or choir screen with icons. Most choir screens were removed from Roman Catholic churches after the Council of Trent (1545-1563), but fortunately the Venetians are a headstrong people and they have kept one in several of their churches, the Santa Maria Assunta being one of them. Beneath the altar of the cathedral are the alleged remains of Saint Heliodorus, who died ca. 390 and is considered the first bishop of Altino, the city of which the diocese was moved to Torcello in ca. 640 (see above). Heliodorus was a close friend of Saint Hieronymus, who was responsible for the Vulgate, the Latin translation of the Bible.
And then we have the eleventh century campanile, standing some 55 metres tall. Note that there are no proper stairs: instead of steps, there is a long internal ramp winding its way to the top. The view from the bell tower is wonderful indeed. The lagoon is clearly visible, as are the colourful houses and the church of the neighbouring island of Burano (see above). From up here, the visitor can also study the contours of Torcello itself and ponder about what the island must have been like when it was still inhabited by thousands of people.
This post is based on many sources, among them my Trotter travel guide to Northeast Italy, a Dorling Kindersley travel guide to Italy, John Julius Norwich’s ‘A History of Venice’, the wonderful website The Churches of Venice and the article about the cathedral on Italian Wikipedia.
 A population of up to 20.000 souls is mentioned in many sources, but it may actually have been somewhat lower.