The almost-deserted island of Torcello is one of the most atmospheric places in the Venetian lagoon.
Visiting the island today, it is hard to imagine that at its height, in the fifteenth century, Torcello was a thriving community of upwards of 15,000 souls. Nowadays, there are no more than a dozen residents.
The people might have disappeared, but the ancient cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, the oldest building in the lagoon, has survived. The cathedral, which is famous for its mediaeval mosaics, was founded in 639, but was largely rebuilt in 1008.
The mosaic in the apse dates back to the 11th century and depicts the Veneto-Byzantine figure of the Virgin holding the Christ-child. She stands in a blue robe against an empty expanse of gold. At a lower level are eleven of the apostles and St Paul.
The monumental mosaic on the counter-facade depicts the Last Judgement, the end of human time. It dates from the late 11th century, but the three upper registers were heavily restored in the 19th century. At the top is Christ on the Cross flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. Below is the Descent into Limbo (or the Harrowing of Hell), in which Christ sets free Adam, whose wrist he seizes, Eve and others, including King Solomon and King David.
At a lower level is Christ in Glory between the Virgin and St John the Baptist, with ranks of saints and apostles to either side. Beneath this we see the angels waking the dead with their trumpets.
The lowest register depicts a number of scenes: in the centre is the Virgin Orans with the Archangel Michael and the Devil weighing souls. To the left are the Blessed in Paradise. In a garden below is Abraham receiving the souls of the saved. He is accompanied by the Madonna, the Good Thief and Saint Peter. To the right are the damned amidst various gruesome scenes from Hell.
It is well worth climbing the ancient bell tower (11th-12th century) for the wonderful views of Torcello and the surrounding lagoon. In The Stones of Venice John Ruskin described the view towards evening: “Far as the eye can reach, a waste of wild sea-moor, of a lurid ashen-grey.” And to the south he could see the “long irregular line” of the campanili and palazzi of Venice. He wrote poignantly: “Mother and daughter, you behold them both in their widowhood – Torcello and Venice."