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Some people call this tiny island the most magical place in Venice. Nearly deserted today (except for the very posh Locanda Cipriani (who loved this restaurant and inn for its solitude), the island still casts a spell, perhaps because, in the 10th century, this was Venice. In their flight from barbarians 1,500 years ago, the first Venetians landed here, prospering even after many left to found the city of Venice. By the 10th century, Torcello had a population of 10,000 and was more powerful than Venice. From the 12th century on, the lagoon around the island began silting up, and a malarial swamp developed. As malaria took its toll, Torcello was gradually abandoned and its palaces and houses were dismantled, their stones used for building materials in Venice. All that's left now is the hauntingly beautiful cathedral (1008), containing exquisite, although poorly restored, Byzantine mosaics. The Virgin and the Apostles in the apse, as well as the spectacular Last Judgement, date from the 12th century, predating most of the mosaics in the Basilica di San Marco. There's also the graceful 11th- and 12th-century church of Santa Fosca. And, of course, the Locanda Cipriani.
Santa Maria Assunta. The hallowed centerpiece of Torcello, Santa Maria Assunta was built in the 11th century, and the island's wealth at the time is evident in the church's high-quality mosaics. The mosaics show the gradually increasing cultural independence of Venice from Byzantium. The magnificent late-12th-century mosaic of the Last Judgment shows the transition from the stiffer Byzantine style on the left to the more-fluid Venetian style on the right. The virgin in the main apse dates possibly from about 1185, and is of a distinctly Byzantine type, with her right hand pointing to the Christ child held with her left arm. The 12 apostles below her are possibly the oldest mosaics in the church and date from the early 12th century. The adjacent Santa Fosca church, built when the body of the saint arrived in 1011, is still used for religious services. The bell tower is undergoing renovation (completion date is unknown at this writing). It is not accessible to visitors. Torcello, Isola di Torcello, 30175. 041/730119. Santa Maria Assunta €5, audio guide €1. Basilica: Mar.-Oct., daily 10:30-6; Nov.-Feb., daily 10-5. Campanile: currently closed for restorations. Vaporetto: Vaporetto: Torcello.
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