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Arriving at Torcello island is itself a unique experience. The silence of the water transports you away from the noise of city life to a place lying far back in time. Even before landing the orientation point is to be clearly seen: the bell tower which climbs to the skies from the flat horizon of the lagoon. Moving closer we can see the two structures of the church rising amidst the flora of the island of Torcello – the sole trace of man in a wholly natural setting.
In fact only a few inhabitants remain on Torcello island though it was here that the history of Venice has its origins: its first splendours and power, its first episcopal centre, its first port and sites of manufacture and commerce. Torcello, Venice, Italy: two destinations wholly different yet intrinsically bound together both in the past and today.
The history of Torcello island in Venice was finally brought to light and remains today in all its glory. One can clearly see how Venice owes this tiny island part of its history, culture, art and faith. The elegant and solemn vestiges of a past for too long forgotten rises once again in all its splendour, irradiating with religious silence the northern area of the lagoon. Torcello and Venice, together once more.
In all probability the island of Torcello was inhabited in the Roman epoch, at least during the Imperial age, when some of the villas of Altino were built (and which are celebrated in the famous verses of Martial). During archaeological excavations in the 1970s traces of typical Roman dwellings were discovered. An epigraphic description on the entrance to the church records its erection in 639 A.D: Isaac, the hesiarch of Ravenna, during the archbishopric of Mauro, led the natives of nearby Altino here to safety from the invading Longobards.
Three main periods of building took place: the first (from 639), from which the lower part of the facade remains; the second from 864-867, from which only very few elements remain; and the third from 1008 which gives it its current appearance. Throughout the centuries many factors have contributed to enrich the Basilica of Torcello: among them, we must certainly remember the beautiful mosaics that represent one of the most important mosaic cycles in northern Italy.
The Last Judgement Mosaic (13th- 14th centuries) - the most renowned mosaic of Torcello Basilica - is a majestic work of art, an almost blinding composition of gold mosaics imbued, nonetheless, with profound spirituality. Even those untouched by its message of faith will struggle to limit themselves to a mere look such is the attraction of these fascinating representations.
The Last Judgement Mosaic is a composition of images arranged in strips in a downwards fashion. Below is a description of the main elements of the Torcello Mosaic.
The first scene shows Christ on the Cross with Mary and Saint John the Evangelist; the second scene shows Jesus triumphing over evil and death, trampling on the devil and smashing the gates to Hell; in the lower facade Christ appears between the Virgin and John the Baptist who plead with him on behalf of humanity. Christ is represented in the mystical kernel, indicating his divine nature concealed in an earthly body. In keeping with the Scriptures a river of fire descends from the kernel, nourishing the fires of Hell, situated in the bottom right.
The lower central facade contains the throne of the Triumph of the Cross: the instruments of the Passion are clearly visible. On the sides we can see two scenes from the resurrection of the dead and underneath the scene of the weighing of souls. To the left are the blessed, under whom Paradise is depicted.
In a lush garden to the right kneels Saint Peter holding the keys while indicating the gates to Paradise. Near the gates the Good Thief awaits, with the cross, symbol of his redemption; at his side the Virgin intercedes for the salvation of sinners. To the right of this scene we can see the damned. Next to these is Abram, crouching between two trees and surrounded by those awaiting salvation.
The other capital sins are represented on the two upper facades, divided into six red and black squares. In the lunette above the doorway the praying Virgin appears: once more interceding for humanity in the hour of judgement and accompanying us with her prayers as we leave the basilica.
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