Sunday, January 08, 2006

Venice - Jan 2005 Part III

The plan was for the next day to go pick up some material for packed lunches from a supermarket and head to Torcello. We woke slightly later than planned and went to the nearest supermarket (the one on the same street as the Pizzeria). It had a huge selection of cold meats and cheeses, but something stopped us from trying out our ordering skills and we left with only bottled water. I had recently learned "a half" and was dying to ask for 250 grammes of cheese by asking for a mezzo mezzo. I had to wait for the next day to do this.

The boat to Torcello goes via some part of the lagoon accessible by road from the mainland and then via Burano. Stopping on Burano made us want to explore after Torcello, rather than go straight to Murano and then Venice. So we waited for the Burano to Torcello shuttle with the others and set off for the island which we could see in the misty half-distance. We could make out what we assumed must be the eponymous tower, from Burano, but not much else. I had read that there were essentially two old buildings on the island, one a round church and the older of the two, the other a basilica sort of building with stunning mosaics. There was also the famous "throne of Atilla" a marble throne which was said to have been sat upon by Atilla the Hun when he passed through the area, many centuries before Venice was inhabited. In fact, Torcello has the earliest signs of habitation in the lagoon. Today, the island has about five buildings in total - it seems to be just open land for walking and picnicking and in the half sun and mist we had while there, it was as atmospheric as the guide books describe. From the vaporetto stop, there is a fifteen minute walk to the overpriced museum, opposite which is the square with the two churches.

Corinna sits on "Attila's throne" in front of the two old churches

Round churches usually have a special and significant history, being as they are imitations of the Constantinian and later Justinian church of the holy sepulcher in Jerusalem. This one was rather bland on the inside. The basilica was far more exciting and was one of the big draws of the trip. Inside things to see include, apart from the bones of St. Hippolito (?),two sections of mosaic. The first, is a full standing theotokos in the main apse, the second, on the back wall of the church is a series of bands, of various ages, essentially showing the usual heaven and hell stuff. Obviously the work had been done by craftsmen from the east, or under their guidance.

One section which I found especially disturbing, mainly because I have not seen a parallel elsewhere, was the section with the proud in hell, where there were shown a number of kings and queens and bishops. What's wrong with this? Nothing, in itself. What disturbed me was the fact that the kings and queens were dressed as Byzantine emperors and their empresses, and the bishops were dressed as patriarchs. Whether or not this is standard practice - the depiction of those who were first on earth being amongst the last in hell - it is clear that the young Enrico Dandolo would have grown up having seen the images, at a time long after their creation when the kings and queens were iconographically no longer generic, but very much specific images of the eastern rulers. If the kings and queens of the east were in hell being tormented in the flames, it made the justification of the post-Zara movements of the fourth crusade much easier in the minds of those trying to justify them.

Before setting off back to the vaporetto, we were surprised to have walked past a Braille map of the lagoon. Neither of us had seen a map done in Braille before. The shallows and land and water all had different tactile hatching, with a key in the bottom right. You learn something new every day.

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