The Islands of the Venetian Lagoon

The Islands of the Venetian Lagoon

It’s easy to fall under the spell of Venice, the brilliant mosaic of Byzantine, Renaissance and Baroque splendors sprinkled with hints of Islam, born from a series of islands stitched together by arching footbridges. But a short boat ride away into the northern lagoon lay a scattering of small islands where Venice began, long before it became the Serenissima.

Watery Highways

Venice -San Michele in Isola.

The church of San Michele in Isola was the first Renaissance church to be built in Venice.

The Venetian lagoon is very shallow and depending on the tide, can be half mud. Wooden poles lashed together (bricole) emerge from the water to mark the deeper canals. The boats must follow these watery highways between the mud banks to avoid the risk of running aground.

Shortly after departure from the Fondamente Nove vaporetto (water bus) stop , we pass the island of San Michele. Once a monastery, it became the city’s offshore cemetery in the early 19th century. Its proximity to Venice makes its long enclosure wall a familiar line across the north lagoon. The boat ride also offers a rare opportunity for a close up view at its white Istrian stone church, San Michele in Isola (1469), the first Renaissance church to be built in Venice.

The Island of Glass

Venice-Murano bell tower.

The bell tower dominates the center of Murano.

Because of its proximity to the city and the worldwide reputation of its hand-blown glass, Murano is the most visited of the islands. It is a microcosm of Venice, with a few elegant palazzos and the Romanesque church of Santa Maria e San Donato, known for its 12th century mosaic floor. Murano also has its own “grand canal”, which is lined with glass shops and showrooms.

Murano-Showroom canal.

Glass showrooms line Murano’s “grand canal”.

Venice had been famed for its glass since the early 13th century. By 1291, the glass furnaces were all moved here to protect the city from outbreaks of fire, and to safeguard the secret of glassmaking techniques. Glass is still Murano’s trade, although nowadays it’s as much a tourist attraction than a center of industry. Most of the souvenir items that fill its shops come from China. But there are still a number of working glass furnaces on the island, where you can observe artisans at work on authentic Murano glass pieces as you go by. There is also a Glass Museum (Museo del Vetro) for those interested in the history of glass making.


Mystery Islands

Lagoon- San Francescso.

The monastery island of San Francesco del Deserto is concealed behind a jagged line of cypresses.

As we continue on our way northward, I notice on our right an exceptionally long shadow across the water. It’s Sant’Erasmo, the garden that produces vegetables for the markets of Venice, especially renowned for the quality of its asparagus and artichokes. At 3.25 square kilometers (800 acres) this green island dotted with tiny farmsteads is the largest of lagoon.

Now in ruins, Madonna de’Monte is crumbling into the lagoon.

A bit further on, a small rectangular island appears, entirely boxed in by dark cypresses. It’s San Francesco del Deserto, a Franciscan monastery founded in 1230 and still active today. San Franscesco is accessible only via private craft and can be visited only by prior arrangement with the resident monks. The monastic buildings include the original Medieval cloister and a Renaissance one built in the 15th century.

Lagoon-Burano bell tower.

A precariously angled bell tower marks the approach of Burano.

Then, just as the precariously angled bell tower of Burano begins to materialize in the distance, we pass one of the smallest island of the lagoon. It’s Madonna de’Monte, characterized by a long, crumbling two-story brick structure emerging from a blanket of vines. Once home to an early 14th century Benedictine monastery, then a convent and finally in the mid-1800s an ammunition depot, it is now a ruin. The surrounding levee has disintegrated and the island is shrinking with every passing year. It may soon be the first one in the lagoon to disappear altogether.

Colorful Islands


Mazzorbo is a quiet neighborhood of brightly painted rowhouses.

Linked only by a long footbridge, the twin islands of Mazzorbo and Burano (population 7,000) are a fisherman village version of Venice. Mazzorbo is a quiet neighborhood of comfortably lived-in houses, festooned with drying laundry and flowers on windowsills, clustered around common patches of grass. On the Burano side of the bridge things become livelier. Several small canals act as thoroughfares. Alleys lead to a couple of sunny squares. Signs of the island’s busy fishing industry are still found in the boats filling the tiny harbors that dot the shoreline and the nets drying here and there.

Lagoon-Burano (2)

Boats line the small canals of Burano.

What both islands have in common is a tradition of brightly painted facades, said to have started so that fishermen coming back in the fog could identify their homes from afar. Today, practically all the houses are painted, and the festive atmosphere of these two colorful village draws boatfuls of tourists.

In earlier times, while the men were on the lagoon the women made lace, and Burano became famous for the high quality of its lace. These days, most of the products that fill the shop windows throughout the center of town come from Asia, but more than two hundred examples of precious Venetian lace from the 16th to the 20th century are on display at the Lace Museum (Museo del Merletto).

The Island Where Venice Began

Lagoon-Torcello town square.

The tiny town square of Torcello.

From Burano, a small vaporetto (Line T) makes the short journey across to Torcello, the first of the lagoon islands to become home to mainlanders fleeing the hordes of Attila the Hun, sometime in the 5th century. By the 11th century, it had become a thriving center of trade with a population estimated around 10,000. It is from here that settlers first started moving to the area around the Rialto Bridge. Then malaria, along with competition from the upstart community we now know as Venice, set in and depopulated Torcello. Its abandoned palaces were scavenged for materials to build La Serenissima.

Lagoon-Torcello mosaics.

The Christ Pantocrator is one of the fine ancient mosaics in Torcello’s Basilica dei Santa Maria Assunta.

Today, with only a handful of permanent residents and green fields surrounding its few remaining buildings, peaceful Torcello exudes a lovely lost-in-time atmosphere. From the dock, one long canal leads past a small vineyard to a gravel town square with by a cluster of buildings dominated by one of the finest early Venetian-Byzantine churches in Italy, the Basilica dei Santa Maria Assunta. Its 12th century mosaics, the oldest in the Veneto, of the Madonna and Child and the Last Judgment, are dazzling gold-flecked masterpieces that rival those of the San Marco. And they can be enjoyed in quasi seclusion, as few tourists ever make it this far.

Lagoon-San Michele.

The wall surrounding the island cemetery of San Michele is a familiar golden line across the north lagoon.

Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Venice public transports company, ACTV, runs efficient and punctual vaporetto lines all around Venice and the outlaying islands of the lagoon. including Murano and Burano (Line 12) from the Fondamente Nove and San Zaccaria stops. Single fare tickets are available but travel cards for unlimited travel during a set period (24, 48 and 72 hours, or one week) are a more cost effective option. During the day, the Line 12 runs approximately every 30 to 45 minutes. A separate shuttle runs between Burano to Torcello (Line T) several times per hour.
  • Visiting – The shops and furnaces of Murano operate on a limited schedule and are usually closed by 5:00 or 6:00 pm. The  Murano Glass Museum (Museo del Vetro), Fondamenta Marco Giustinian 8, 30141 Venice, is open daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm from November 1st to March 31st  and 10:00 am to 6:00 pm from April 1st to October 31st. The Burano Lace Museum  (Museo del Merletto) Piazza Baldassarre Galuppi, 187, 30142 Burano, Venice, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm and closed on Monday.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!




Living Venice – The Great Museums of the Dorsoduro

Living Venice – The Great Museums of the Dorsoduro

Venice has raised cultural overload to, well, an art form. In addition its renowned museums and the ethereal beauty of its architecture, every neighborhood church is likely to be graced with at least a couple of notable works by Renaissance masters.

The Treasures of the Dorsoduro

Venice-Dorsoduro I Gesuiti.

The Dorsoduro Church of Santa Maria del Rosario rises from the Giudecca Canal.

The Dorsoduro alone, my favorite place to stay in the Serenissima, is home to the Gallerie dell ’Accademia, 20-plus rooms overflowing with the works of the Venetian greats: Titan, Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Canaletto, Carpaccio, Giorgione, the Bellini brothers (Gentile and Giovanni), et al. And a barely 5-minute walk south, the white façade of Corinthian columns topped by a triangular pediment of the Church of Santa Maria del Rosario (commonly known as I Gesuati) soars from the edge of the Giudecca Canal. The interior is a Tiepolo showpiece with majestic Rococo ceiling frescoes and a large, arched portrait of the Madonna with three Dominican female saints.

Venice-Dorsoduro Basin.

The Basin of St. Mark viewed from the Zattere Promenade.

Then, another 10-minute walk east along the Zattere Promenade, taking in the fabulous view of the Giudecca Canal and the St. Mark Basin, leads to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Inside, the Baroque landmark at the mouth of the Grand Canal is a Titian extravaganza, with for good measure on the high altar a 12th century Byzantine Madonna and Child brought from Greece in the 17th century after the fall of the city of Candia to the Ottomans.

After a few days of overindulging on majestic public buildings with bejeweled interiors brimming with Madonnas and martyrs, it’s time for a visit to Peggy.

The Peggy Guggenheim Collection

The Pallazo Vernier dei Leoni, for three decades the Grand Canal home of American heiress and legendary Honorary Venetian Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979), is as unique as the woman herself and the impressive modern art collection she accumulated there.

Venice-Guggenheim foyer.

The central foyer showcases Calder’s “Arc of Petals” mobile and Picasso’s canvas “On the Beach.”

What looks at first glance like a low-slung contemporary villa of white stone, stretched between the canal and a large leafy garden, turns out to be the first floor of an unfinished 18th century palazzo. Nobody knows what caused the Verniers, one of the oldest noble families in Venice, to abandon the construction. Nor is it known how the palace came to be associated with “leoni” (lions), although that is likely to be have come from the yawing lion’s heads of Istrian stone that decorate the façade at the water’s edge. What is clear, however, is that the palazzo is a uniquely intimate setting for the impressive collection that reflects Peggy Guggenheim’s passion for 20th century art.

Venice-sculpture garden.

Germaine Richier’s “Tauromachy” takes pride of place in the sculpture garden.

She surrounded herself with major works ranging from Cubism to Surrealism to Abstract Expressionism. The greatest artists are represented, from Picasso, Braque, Leger and Brancusi to Ernst, Kandinsky, Magritte, Miró and Rothko Jason Pollock gets a whole room, Calder’s Arc of Petals the focal point of the central foyer. The grounds are an inviting sculpture garden with works from Giacommeti’s “Woman Walking” to  Fritz Koenig’s “Chariot” and Germaine Richier’s “Tauromachy.”

Venice-Costantini glass.

Glass sculptures by Egidio Costantini after sketches by Picasso.

From 1951 on she opened her house and collection to the public during the summer months, all the while adding to her collection over the next three decades. And in 1976, she bequeathed her Palazzo and art to her uncle’s Solomon Guggenheim Foundation. And there it remains today, the most welcoming of the great House Museums in Venice, a relaxed retreat from the crowds shuffling around the San Marco district right across the Grand Canal.


Ca’ Rezzonico


The Baroque marble facade of the Palazzo Ca’ Rezzonico.

Another Dorsoduro House Museum not to be missed is Ca’ Rezzonic, located a few minutes away westward at the point where the Grand Canal is joined by the Rio di San Barnaba. The sumptuous white marble Baroque pallazo, originally commissioned in 1648 by one of the great patrician dynasties of the city, was another masterpiece interrupted when the family’s finances collapsed. A century later, ownership passed to the wealthy merchant and banker Giambattista Rezzonico. The completion in the Palazzo marked the pinnacle of the new owner’s upward social journey. In addition to completing the palazzo, Rezzonico commissioned frescoes for the ceiling of all the public rooms by noted artists, including Giambattista Tiepolo. The frescoes remain in place to this day, and are considered among some of the best-preserved in Venice.


“Rio dei Mendicanti” is one of only two Canaletto paintings remaining in Venice.

By 1819, the family had died out, leaving only their palazzo to memorialize the Rezzonico name. The building passed through various owners until it was finally sold the Venice Town Council in 1935. Today, as the Museum of 18th century Venice, it is one of the gems of the city, displaying furnishings and art created for great palaces, thus offering visitors a glimpse into the life of the upper class in Venice’s Golden Age. The ballroom and state rooms are reached by a regal marble staircase, its balustrades decorated with statues by Giusto Le Court, the leading venetian sculptor of the late 17th century. There are Murano chandeliers, local scenes by Canaletto and Tintotetto hanging on the walls.And from the soaring façade windows, eye-popping views of the Grand Canal and the heart of Venice.


Good to Know

  • Getting there – The Dorsoduro District is linked to the San Marco District by the Accademia Bridge across the Grand Canal. Another way to get across is the traghetto – If the ultimate Venitian tourist cliché otherwise known as a gondola ride is on your bucket list but you are put off by the extortionate rates, consider a taking a traghetto, the gondola service used by locals to cross the Grand Canal between its four widely spaced bridges. Traghetti usually run from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm at six crossing points. Rates are € 2 per crossing for non-residents. One of the stops is close the the Accademia Bridge.
  • Visiting – Gallerie del Accademia, Campo Della Carità, 1050, 30123 Venice. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 8:15 am to 7:15 pm and Monday from 8:15 am to 2:00 pm. Santa Maria Del Rosario – Fondamenta Zattere Ai Gesuati, 30123, Venice. Open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, closed on Sunday. Santa Maria della Salute, Campo della Salute, Dorsoduro, 1, 30123 Venice, Open every day from 9:00 am until noon and 3:00 pm until 5:30 pm. Peggy Guggenheim Collection, 704 Dorsoduro, 30123, Venice. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday. Ca’ Rezzonico Dorsoduro 3136, 30123 Venice. Open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday.

Location, location, location!