Saving Torcello, an ancient church in the Venetian Lagoon

Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, founded 639, reconstructed 864 and 1008

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] I’m standing in the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, on the island of Torcello, with Melissa Conn from Save Venice. We’re about half-an-hour water taxi ride from Venice proper, in the oldest structure in the Venetian lagoon.

Melissa Conn: [0:22] Torcello was considered by Ruskin the mother of Venice. This was the first area where the early Venetian settlers came from the mainland to escape the barbarian invasions, but this is the swampiest part. And so it’s understandable why Venice shifts to what we know as Venice proper and thrive during the Renaissance.

[0:40] But Torcello is that trace back to the Byzantine era and earlier.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] It’s painful to think about the water that was here so recently and the imminent danger to the church. Without the work that Save Venice and others have done over the years, we might lose that historical record.

Melissa: [1:01] Salt is our biggest enemy at this point. The salts have increased now since the floods of November of 2019, when the church had over a foot of water in it on several occasions, and so that increased the salt that was already present.

Dr. Harris: [1:15] It corrodes stone, it seeps up through the soil and up through the very floor itself, which is also ancient.

Melissa: [1:23] It comes up through the seawater and it’s also in the atmosphere. Then, when the water evaporates, the salt crystals remain on the surface of the stonework. It also swells as it dries. The salt creates the rise in the pavement and it disintegrates the bricks, which then weakens the structure that hold the mosaics in place.

[1:43] A lot of our work is desalinating. You have to work brick by brick to make sure the bricks are stable and not too full of salt, but you don’t want to replace too many bricks because you don’t want a new wall.

Dr. Harris: [1:55] I think some people might ask, “Why not have a new wall? Why preserve those bricks?”

Melissa: [2:00] It’s really an incredible structure here on Torcello. And we’ve seen the evolution of the building as each wall has different fragments. Some of the stonework is even older because it comes from a Roman settlement on the mainland and so you have such a mix, and that’s very important.

Dr. Harris: [2:17] It gives us a sense of the building through time and that’s precious knowledge.

Melissa: [2:22] In the 19th century, people had no qualms about rebuilding and changing and creating new elements, and now they want to preserve as much of the original elements, make those original elements stable and worthy of continuing in the future.

[2:37] Save Venice was first involved in Torcello in the 1980s in a campaign with other international committees to preserve the mosaics. Now, Save Venice has returned to Torcello as part of an anniversary project to celebrate Save Venice’s 50th anniversary.

[2:52] We have adopted two apses, which have mosaics that date from the 9th to the 11th century.

Dr. Harris: [2:59] If you work on the mosaics, you have to work on the architectural fabric of the church itself.

Melissa: [3:04] Absolutely. Our work now entails the inner walls of the mosaics [and] also the outer wall which supports the mosaic. That’s the most in danger because the brickwork is crumbling from the salts, the mortar is disintegrating.

Dr. Harris: [3:17] The other thing that we can think about is the layers, the accretions of history. So we look at that beautiful marble below the mosaic, part of it has been removed where we see an even older fresco, so there are constant decisions to be made.

Melissa: [3:35] Save Venice works closely with the Italian Ministry of Culture, the Superintendency of Fine Arts and Monuments, as well as architects and art historians and conservators. You have to decide, if you remove something, which era are you going to retain?

[3:48] In conservation today, we don’t eliminate anything. There are the fresco fragments from probably 11th century. We’re going to remove some other marble sheeting to see if there are more fragments, but chances are then that marble sheeting will be put back up.

Dr. Harris: [4:02] The deep faith of the people who lived here is so evident in the mosaics that Save Venice is working hard to preserve, this golden apse with Mary holding the Christ Child as our sole focus.

[4:16] On the archway above, we see the angel Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right at the moment of the Annunciation, the moment when God is made flesh, the moment when mankind can be saved.

Melissa: [4:29] Well, Torcello is very important because the Maria Assunta was the most important church in this whole area, and Mary is a very important figure. The Annunciation, a very important interpretation because March 25th, 421, is the day of the historic founding of the city of Venice. That’s also the feast day of the Annunciation.

Dr. Harris: [4:47] And then on the opposite wall, we have another fabulous mosaic, this one incredibly complicated, subjects ranging from Christ taking Adam and Eve out of hell, a scene of the Last Judgment, of Christ, and Mary, and John surrounded by the apostles.

[5:06] The river that flows down from Christ in that lovely mandorla, the angels awakening the dead from their graves. The tortures of hell on Christ’s left. On the right, the blessed in heaven.

[5:19] You walk in and out through this west wall of this church. Mary in the center just above that doorway, holding her hands out as though showing us on one side the angel and on the other side the demons. Reminding us that, on the day of our death, we will be judged.

[5:39] There are side chapels. And there we see an image of Christ the Pantokrator, Christ the all-powerful judge who judges all souls.

Melissa: [5:50] What we call the diakonikon apse, and the Christ the Pantokrator mosaic has the angel Gabriel and the angel Michael. Then you have the angels holding up the Lamb of God and all the various beasts and flowers. Some of the floral imagery relates directly to the plants that are found in the Venetian lagoon.

Dr. Harris: [6:10] That plant life, that sense of greenery, of birds, of life that we see remind us of paradise. The church is a place where one could imagine heaven on earth. I can’t imagine a more important place to be saved. We’re very grateful for the work that Save Venice is doing and for your time today. Thank you.

[6:41] [music]

Cite this page as: Melissa Conn, Save Venice and Dr. Beth Harris, "Saving Torcello, an ancient church in the Venetian Lagoon," in Smarthistory, May 7, 2020, accessed June 14, 2024,