Torcello: the Santa Maria Assunta and the Santa Fosca

Jewish Ghetto
Rio d. Misericordia
Jewish Ghetto Rio d. Misericordia Venice aerial

From the hotel, we walk to the Fondamente Nuove via the Jewish ghetto, where we will have breakfast and dinner. Here we take the boat that passes Isola di S. Michele, Murano and Burano to finally arrive at the island of Torcello. You have probably heard quite a bit about this unique island in class. It had much greater importance in the 11th century and was home to more people than Venice. After disembarking, we will walk along the canal to the church.

Youtube drone (1.55 minutes)
lagoon Venice

picture: Wikipedia

Torcello boat stop and the canal to Santa Maria Assunta
Torcello boat stop and the canal to Santa Maria Assunta

pictures: gabrilu and horitzons inesperats

The path from the boat stop to Santa Maria Assunta
Torcello canal to Santa Maria Assunta

picture: Mike Guo

Torcello with a view of
Santa Maria Assunta
Torcello with a view of Santa Maria Assunta

picture: Ken Donald

The island’s canals silted up due to a twist of Mother Nature, destroying a flourishing economy. As a result, neither of the island’s two churches were ever rebuilt in a more contemporary style.

Santa Maria Assunta and the Santa Fosca
Torcello Santa Maria Assunta Santa Fosca aerial

The cathedral Santa Maria Assunta (Assumption of the Virgin Mary) dates from the 7th century but was rebuilt in the 9th and 11th century. The original church had only three naves and just one round apse (two more were added later). In other words, a typical early Christian Roman basilica that can also be found in Grado and Ravenna. Not much remains of the 7th century baptistery, just the circumference of the wall and a few bases of columns. The original baptistery (eight columns and a dome) was located at the front of the cathedral (click here for the floor plans of Santa Maria Assunta and Santa Fosca).

Santa Maria Assunta
Youtube Torcello and the Santa Maria Assunta (6.55 minutes).
 Ruins of the original baptistery
reconstruction baptistery

Torcello Santa Maria Assuntawith Ruins of the original baptistery

pictures: karenviney and kdobbin

The baptistery was for the most part based on the Lateran baptistery in Rome. An inscription was discovered during the 1895 restoration of Santa Maria Assunta. It showed that the church was dedicated to Mary and founded during the reign of emperor Heraclius. Isac, the patriarch of Ravenna, had commissioned its construction in 639. The floorplan has for the most part been preserved, and yet there is little visual evidence of the original materials. The wall of the central apse and the lower part of the entrance wall date from the 7th century.

The original floor lies beneath the present one. In 1929, the original altar was discovered during excavations and restored to its original location.  The church was renovated in 864 under Bishop Adeodato, as stated in the chronicles of John the Deacon. The two side apses and the crypt were built after 864 and the outer wall probably also dates from this period. Santa Maria Assunta acquired its current exterior in 1008 under bishop Orso Orseolo, who later became doge. The floor was raised during this period. Windows were added to the upper part of the south wall, adding one clerestory to the nave. These upper windows in the south wall still have the original stone hinges that the wooden shutters are attached to. The arches of the colonnade are the stone arches from the 11th century. Two capitals on the right hand side of the nave were reused.

Nave and interior facade

Torcello Santa Maria Assunta interior nave

picture (mouseover) seier+seier+seier

The interior is quite austere, in marked contrast with the San Marco. The concha of the apse features a mosaic of the Virgin Mary with Child.

View of the apse
Choir screen
 Torcello Santa Maria Assunta mosaic Mary apse
Torcello Santa Maria Assunta mosaic Christ
right apse
9th century
Christ among the archangels Michael Gabriel Nicolas, Ambrose, Augustin, Martin
Torcello Santa Maria Assunta mosaic Christ apse

When we’re in Santa Maria Assunta, we will focus on the unique mosaics on the Apocalypse.

west wall
last Judgement details
entire west wall

Torcello Santa Maria Assunta mosaic Last Judgment west wall

Unfortunately, entire sections of the mosaics were removed in the 19th century and replaced with copies. When leaving the church, the visitor was subtly reminded to remember the Day of Judgement. Very few could read, but the images, arranged like a comic strip, were all too well understood.

Two scenes from hell
Torcello Santa Maria Assunta mosaic Last Judgment scene from hell

The resurrection of the dead, the angel weighing the souls, but mostly the horrible events in hell must have made lasting impressions on the churchgoers. All the more so as images were relatively rare during the Middle Ages.

The Santa Fosca

Adjacent to the cathedral Santa Maria Assunta is a small church called Santa Fosca (floor plan, vertical elevation and cross section). This little church is a mausoleum specifically built for Saint Fosca.

Santa Fosca
Santa Fosca Torcello

A martyr who was brought to the island in 1011, or at least his bones were. The church is not just a martyrium, but was also used for certain ceremonies and of course to worship the relics.

Santa Fosca


Santa Fosca
cross section
wooden dome
Santa Fosca Torcello interieur

Only limited numbers of believers ever met in Santa Fosca, so a small central-plan church was the most suitable construction type. The Roman model was probably copied from Santa Stefano. And yet, Santa Fosca shows Byzantine influences just like Galla Placida in Ravenna, which, just like this church, has a Greek Cross as its floor plan. The church is crowned by a round dome. A Greek cross with a dome is one of the most important characteristics of Byzantine architecture. The most famous example of which is the Hagia Sophia, built in the early 6th century. The domed Greek cross also became a dominant theme of Venetian architecture. The builders of Santa Fosca obviously also wanted a dome, but the construction was not all that strong, which is why they built a wooden dome that was raised on the outside: a safe and cheap solution.

The portico around Santa Fosca dates from the 12th century. In the portico, the Greek cross changes into an octagonal with five bays on each side and three on the diagonal sides. The portico’s alternation of round and polygonal columns is a nice variation. And the arches have been substantially lengthened compared to the interior of Santa Fosca. The portico has a clear vertical accent which directs the eye to the construction elements above. The whole appears to be a complicated mass of various construction elements with a climactic centre that nevertheless is in perfect harmony. This is a characteristic of 6th century Byzantine architecture that can also be found in Ravenna, for example in San Vitale.

portico Santa Fosca
Santa Fosca Torcello portico

pictures: forgia1

We will take a walk around this little church. The exterior at the rear, the east side, near the apse consists of simple bricks, albeit richly decorated. The dogtooth pattern is often used in early Christian Veneto-Byzantine churches, although rarely on the outside as is the case with Santa Fosca. The combination of red brick and white marble was quite common and often used in Venetian architecture. San Marco looked like that in 11th century, prior to the large-scale decoration programme that lasted several centuries. Santa Fosca is an early and important example of Byzantine architecture in the lagoon.

apse sides
dogtooth pattern
Santa Fosca Torcello apse  dogtooth pattern

picture (mouseover): Gio Vencato

Before we leave the island, we will climb to the top of the campanile from where you can enjoy a beautiful view.

the campanile and the view
Santa Maria AssuntaTorcello the campanile and the view

pictures: Lispanico – Federico Gherlenda

We will pass Burano when we take the boat back to Venice.

Tickets for Grand Canal Boat Tour

View of Burano from Torcello
View of Burano from Torcello

picture: gabrilu

The trip back from Torcello via the Canal Grande. The Canal Grande originally was a meandering river carving out a path in the marshy lagoon. It always was the most important connection and still is extremely busy today.

Youtube  Venice per Drone (4.04  minutes)

Venice aerial luchtfoto

The canal is four kilometres long, between 30 and 70 meters wide and five metres deep. Three bridges cross the Canal Grande, the most famous of which is the Rialto bridge with its shops. Most of the palaces facing the Canal Grande are 500 years old. It was a very popular and very expensive place to build, which is why most of the houses facing are rightfully called palazzi.

Rialto bridge in the present day and Canaletto’s vision
youtube reconstruction (1.55 minutes)
Rialto bridge Canal Grande

Standing in the boat, you can perfectly read the architectural history from the facades along the Canal Grande. We will take a closer look at several of the palazzi facing the Canal Grande in the architecture programme, albeit from jetties and narrow dead-end alleyways.

Palazzi along the Grand Canal Venice 

The chronological order below is unfortunately not the route that we are taking. For the itinerary please read the bold numbers in brackets. We first pass number 1, etc. The typical 13th century Veneto-Byzantine style can for instance be seen in the Ca da Mosto (more specifically the ground floor; photo: dvdbramhall) one of the oldest palazzi on the canal. The same applies to the 13th century Fondaco dei Turchi which will soon appear on our starboard side.

Ca’ da Mosto
Ca da Mosto Venice

picture: BillT

Fondaco dei Turchi

 Fondaco dei Turchi Venetië

One of the most impressive houses was named for the gold that used to cover it. This house from 1420 is a good example of Gothic architecture in Venice.

Ca' d'Oro Venice

Click here for the continuation of day 1