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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.