The island where Venice began

(CNN) — Flying into Venice, on the right hand side of the airplane, you’ll see the city unfurl beneath you: a mass of terracotta roofs, brick bell towers and those canals, knitting the 118 islands of Venice together.

Then, as the plane continues northwards across the lagoon to land at Venice airport, just outside the suburb of Tessera, you’ll see another smattering of islands in the north of the lagoon.

Most are little more than uninhabited mudflats. But as you approach the airport you’ll see Burano, heart-shaped from the air with its colorful houses and tilted belltower, and Mazzorbo beside it, where the houses stand around a vineyard in the middle of the lagoon.

Just across the water from them, and the last thing you’ll see before you touch down on the runway at Tessera, is an island that appears to be uninhabited apart from one thing: a tall, square bell tower, standing outside a giant brick barn.

That tower is the last thing you see as you hit the runway; you can see it from the boarding gates, too, which look over the lagoon.

It’s fitting that it’s the first and last sign of humanity you see coming into or out of Venice, because Torcello is the island where Venice began.

The birthplace of a city… or of a myth?

The now barely inhabited island was once home to 20,000 people.

The now barely inhabited island was once home to 20,000 people.

Sabine Lubenow/imageBROKER/Shutterstock

At least, it is according to tradition. For centuries, Venetians have been told that this little island is where everything started.

Torcello was settled in the fifth century, so the story goes, by refugees fleeing “barbarians” in the dying days of the Roman empire. The silting up of the mainland harbor of Altinum on the mainland also drove people to the island.

Once there, supposedly, they constructed a cathedral decorated with glittering Byzantine-style mosaics.

At its peak, 20,000 people are said to have lived on the island — an astonishing number, considering you can walk its entire length in around 15 minutes.

But eventually, after creating a thriving community on Torcello, it’s said residents moved six miles south to Venice — a rival community around Rivo Alto, which became Rialto (yes, that famous bridge) — when changing lagoon morphology meant that Torcello’s harbor started silting up.

Abandoned for the now-mushrooming city of Venice, Torcello became a place of retreat. Monasteries and churches were built there — St Francis of Assisi is said to have swung by the nearby island of San Francesco del Deserto in 1220, to pray.

But gradually, goes the story, even the monasteries on Torcello were abandoned.

Today, fewer than 20 people live on the island year-round, while tourists flock to see the church, said to have some of the most impressive Byzantine mosaics left in Italy. Luminaries who have visited the island include the Queen Elizabeth II and Ernest Hemingway, who wrote “Across the River and into the Trees” during a stay at Locanda Cipriani, a historic restaurant-with-rooms on the island.

Ancient propaganda

The northern lagoon has been inhabited since Roman times, archeologists have discovered.

The northern lagoon has been inhabited since Roman times, archeologists have discovered.

De Agostini Editorial/Getty Images

The story of Torcello as the birthplace of Venice took hold during the age of “La Serenissima,” or “the most serene” republic of Venice, said to have ruled the waves of the Adriatic from 697CE to 1797CE.

The story of refugees building what is said to have been the world’s longest-lasting republic is a beautiful one. There’s just one problem, according to archeologists — the story, which is still retold as historical fact today, simply isn’t true.

“There’s an emotional side to working on Torcello, related to the fact that we have to face the myth the whole time,” says Diego Calaon, professor of archaeology at Venice’s Ca’ Foscari university, and specialist in Venetian topography.

“All the time you’re asking yourself and your colleagues — is this story about immigration into the lagoon not true? The question is hanging in the air all the time and you have to face it. It’s fascinating how much the narrative that La Serenissima developed is still working on our lives.”

In fact, modern archaeology has debunked the myth.

The Venetian lagoon, including Torcello, was “inhabited since Roman times,” says Calaon.

Archaeologists have found the remains of “large wooden infrastructures filled with amphoras, bricks and clay to make embankments,” he says — a type of lagoon landscaping, to divide the water into sections, in order to create areas for fishing and salt pans — the two main business activities.

“But for this infrastructure you need central sites, where workers live nearby, so they had a set of villas — farms or production centers,” he says. The workers would live here, accompanied often by the overseer or owner.

“We had one of those on Torcello — a salt and fish production center,” says Calaon.

“That slowly developed into something else.

“When we check it with archaeological tools, we see the myth of the refugee people is not present.”

The Venetian republic was masterful at propaganda, styling itself as an almost divinely appointed ruler of the seas, and tying key moments in its history to the religious calendar. The story of the city’s origins, it seems, was part of that propaganda.

A city on water

Today, the northern lagoon is known for its fishermen -- who've been there since the time of the Roman empire.

Today, the northern lagoon is known for its fishermen — who’ve been there since the time of the Roman empire.

Simone Padovani/Awakening/Getty Images

Just like any myth, there’s a grain of truth to the idea of Torcello starting in the fifth and sixth centuries — in fact, it was expanding during that period. The harbor at Altinum became unusable, filling up with silt and sand — that part of the myth is true — so the locals moved it to Torcello, building warehouses, piers and a whole new harbor.

That was when Torcello started to become a real settlement, says Calaon, as all the people working at Altinum’s harbor moved onto the island.

“The slaves who built it, those who loaded and unloaded ships, rope makers, people working on ship maintenance, waterproofing, working with wood — there was a gradual deplacement of the harbor structure,” he says.

What’s more, by that time, communities were transitioning from transport by road to by water. The reason? The Roman roads that had been arteries for trade for hundreds of years were no longer fit for purpose. The safest way to transport goods was now by water.

Calaon and his colleagues have discovered “piers and a complex system of warehouses” near the island’s famous church, built on reclaimed land to make the land higher.

“It was a huge investment into making the area workable — they were state of the art docking facilities,” he says.

Medieval boom towns

Neighboring Burano developed as a fishing community near Torcello, and is still going strong.

Neighboring Burano developed as a fishing community near Torcello, and is still going strong.

Brian Fry Travel and Nature Photography/Alamy

Alongside Torcello and its 20,000-strong population, neighboring islands Burano and Mazzorbo blossomed — Burano was known for its fishermen, while Mazzorbo was an agricultural community. The northern lagoon was booming.

What every community needed back then, of course, was a place of worship. So when the area was already a thriving business hub, in the seventh century CE, the bishop of Altinum decided to build a new church “in his new harbor neighborhood, where the number of inhabitants was probably bigger than those in Altinum itself,” says Calaon.

He likens the move to the difference between central Venice and Mestre, the modern suburb on the mainland, with five times the residents of the historical center.

“If the mayor of Venice wanted to build a new city hall, it would probably be in Mestre,” he says. By the time the bishop came to build his church on Torcello, it had been 200 years since Altinum had been a powerhouse.

The ‘cathedral in the desert’

The basilica of Santa Maria Assunta has inspired countless artists.

The basilica of Santa Maria Assunta has inspired countless artists.

Francesco Bonino/Alamy

That church, of course, is the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, whose mosaics in the wilderness have helped bolster the myth of Torcello.

Above the altar is an almond-eyed Madonna, while the back wall of the church is entirely taken up by a 12th-century “Last Judgment” mosaic, including scenes of sinners burning in Hell, and snakes sliding in and out of skeleton eye sockets — all glittering on a gold tessera background.

Today, its Byzantine style makes it special, but back in the day, this was normal in northern Italy — especially in the Venice area, says professor Ken Dark of the University of Navarra, a specialist in Roman and Byzantine archaeology. It’s just that most churches were redecorated as tastes changed over time — meaning that places like Torcello and Ravenna, 90 minutes south of Venice, are now pockets of the past trapped in time.

There’s a reason why they’re both on the Adriatic coast, too. Dark says that trading links between Constantinople and the Venetian lagoon meant that the settlements took huge inspiration from the Byzantine culture.

“In the fifth, sixth and early seventh centuries, Byzantine Christian culture was absolutely dominant in the eastern Mediterranean,” he says.

“Because it was so much more spectacular than anything in the west, the western church and kingdoms looked to the east for models of grandeur. If it was current in Constantinople it was trendy whether you were in northern Italy, Spain or France. They were copying, copying, copying the Byzantine state.”

The 'Last Judgment' mosaic was created in the 12th century.

The ‘Last Judgment’ mosaic was created in the 12th century.

Frederic Reglain/Alamy

The reason why Santa Maria Assunta stands out these days, he says, is because in other parts of Europe, the fashion moved on. But as the settlements on the lagoon grew ever more powerful, and became Europe’s main trading point with the East, they continued to take inspiration from the Byzantine empire.

St Mark's basilica in Venice is inspired by a long-destroyed church in Constantinople.

St Mark’s basilica in Venice is inspired by a long-destroyed church in Constantinople.

Mondadori Portfolio/Getty Images

Torcello’s “Last Judgment” stayed “emphatically Byzantine,” according to Dark, because Venice was so connected to the empire. St Mark’s basilica in Venice, he says, is the closest we have to the destroyed Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople, which was once second only to Hagia Sophia.

The 1204 sacking of Constantinople even saw the Venetians take a vast amount of looted art back to Venice. Yes, Venice proper — because by that time, the Rialto settlement had eclipsed that on Torcello.

The birth of Venice

The settlement of Venice was initially centered around the Rialto, still home to a busy market.

The settlement of Venice was initially centered around the Rialto, still home to a busy market.

Awakening/Getty Images

Venice — or the community around Rialto that became Venice — was founded shortly after Torcello, but gradually eclipsed the original settlement. Although there is evidence that the islands of Venice were seeing some use during the early Middle Ages, Calaon said the city really took root in the early ninth century, when doge Giustiniano Participazio moved the ducal palace from Malamocco, on the island of Lido, to Rialto, and founded the first church dedicated to St Mark.

As Venice grew, Torcello withered. “Venice took on the role of the major trade and harbor center for the whole lagoon, so these places [in the north lagoon] became peripheries,” says Calaon.

“Only Burano survived because it was the neighborhood of the fishermen, and that role was not stolen.”

In fact, he says, Burano — which is still a fishing island — is effectively the oldest community left in the lagoon. Workers use ancient techniques to catch their fish, one by one, meaning the traditions have been handed down for centuries.

But while Burano has held on, Torcello died. Another nail in the coffin: in the 12th and 13th centuries, its harbor began to silt up, just as Altinum’s had 800 years before.

And so the decline began. With trade now taking place in Venice, the inhabitants of Torcello moved south. Towards the end of the Middle Ages, a plethora of monasteries and convents sprang up on the island — a move which Calaon calls a “signal of the end of the city and island,” showing just how quiet it had become.

By the 19th century, when writer Henry James came to visit, it was already a ghost island. In “Italian Hours” he wrote: “At Torcello there is nothing but the light to see — nothing at least but a sort of blooming sandbar intersected by a single narrow creek… and occupied by a meager cluster of huts, the dwellings apparently of market-gardeners and fishermen, and by a ruinous church of the eleventh century. It is impossible to imagine a more penetrating case of unheeded collapse.”

Calling Torcello the “mother city of Venice,” he continued: “She lies there now, a mere moldering vestige, like a group of weather-bleached parental bones left impiously unburied.”

Busting that myth

Burano island is now one of the most popular destinations for tourists.

Burano island is now one of the most popular destinations for tourists.

Robert Harding/Alamy

In fact, the myth of Torcello as the precursor of Venice has been so strong that even archaeologists have fallen for it over the years. Even the harbor development was previously interpreted in a way that skewed towards the myth.

“In the past we interpreted reclamation as way to enlarge the workable area for a community that was desperately needing areas to work on, but on the contrary — people were looking for a place with a lot of water for their docks,” says Calaon.

“As archeologists, we were victims of the myth of Venice’s birth for many years. In the 1970s and 1990s people were finding Roman things, knowing Torcello was not a new place, but we had cold feet rereading the myth, because the historical narrative was so strong that it somehow shaped our interpretation.

“So we were saying, OK, maybe there was something [earlier] but it was completely abandoned because of changing sea levels. We tended to separate the Roman period from the medieval one.”

It’s only over the past 20 years, he said, that they’ve acknowledged the island was in continuous use from Roman times.

The lure of the wilderness

Torcello may be a 'ghost island' now but the fishermen of Burano use it to catch moeche crabs.

Torcello may be a ‘ghost island’ now but the fishermen of Burano use it to catch moeche crabs.

Luca Bruno/AP

Not that many people know, such is the lure of the Torcello myth — or the “cathedral in the desert,” as Calaon calls it.

And the barely inhabited island has pulling power even for locals.

“It seems to be from a forgotten time — there’s a peacefulness there that’s out of this world,” says Massimiliano Bovo, who runs the famous Gatto Nero restaurant on Burano with his parents.

“I often go there to talk to the fishermen [the area is famous for its moeche, or soft-shell crabs]. Then I stop the boat, find a place to sit down, and have a beer or a glass of wine. The sunset in spring is beautiful, and there are no tourists in the evenings so I feel the island is my own.”

And of course, the demise of Torcello is what saved its famous church. Instead of being refurbished, like everywhere else, says Ken Dark, “abandonment froze it in time.”

For Calaon, there’s a “responsibility” in debunking a centuries-old myth.

He can see why the republic picked Torcello: “The idea of this huge building, isolated in the lagoon, is the perfect setting for a mythical place for the birthplace of Venice.”

Even he calls it “magical.”

Fisherman Andrea Rossi, from Burano, agrees. He has a plot of land on Torcello where he takes visitors birdwatching, and he says the island holds a special resonance.

“Going there I feel like I’m on an island that’s turned back the clock by a few centuries, thanks to the peace and the nature.

“It’s an honor being part of that history.”