Torcello is a quiet and sparsely populated island at the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon. It is considered the oldest continuously populated region of Venice, and once held the largest population of the Republic of Venice.
Torcello benefited from and maintaining close cultural and trading ties with Constantinople, after the fall of the western Roman Empire, but as a rather distant outpost of the Byzantine Empire it could establish de facto autonomy from the eastern capital.
Torcello rapidly grew in importance as a political and trading centre: In the 10th century it had a population of at least 10,000 people and was much more powerful than Venice. Thanks to the lagoon’s salt marshes, the salines became Torcello’s economic backbone and its harbour developed quickly into an important re-export market in the profitable east-west-trade, which was largely controlled by Byzantium during that period. Fortunately for the island of rivus altus (see Rialto), the lagoon around the island of Torcello gradually became a swamp from the 12th century onwards and Torcello’s heyday came to an end: Navigation in the laguna morta (dead lagoon) was impossible before long and the growing swamps seriously aggravated the malaria situation, so that the population abandoned the worthless island bit by bit and left for Murano, Burano or Venice. It now has a population of around 20 people.
The former splendour of Torcello’s numerous palazzi, its twelve parishes and its sixteen cloisters has almost disappeared since the Venetians recycled the useful building material. The only remaining medieval buildings form an ensemble of four edifices.
Today's main attraction is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639 and with much eleventh and 12th century Byzantine work, including mosaics (e.g. a vivid version of the Last Judgement), surviving. Other attractions include the eleventh and 12th century Church of Santa Fosca, which is surrounded by a porticus in form of a Greek cross, and a museum housed in two fourteenth century palaces, the Palazzo dell'Archivio and the Palazzo del Consiglio, which was once the seat of the communal government. Another noteworthy sight for tourists is an ancient stone chair, known as Attila’s Throne. It has, however, nothing to do with the king of the Huns, but it was most likely the podestà’s or the bishop’s chair.
Torcello is also home to a Devil's Bridge, known as the Ponte del Diavolo or alternatively the Pontecello del Diavolo (devil's little bridge).
Ava's Island of Secrets; Ava Gardner Was Lured to Torcello by Its Discreet Charm. Robert Carver Found the Island Still Strangely Compelling
Dec 06, 2003; Byline: ROBERT CARVER FORTY minutes after ploughing across the pearl-grey early-morning waters of Venice's lagoon, a low, green...