I just returned from a trip to Italy in the Venetian lagoon on the island of Torcello to meet the owners of the villa that will be our home for our Venezia – La Serenissima, June 3-13, 2019 tour (an intriguing history and fascinating family – more on that in a bit).
Torcello, was founded in the year 452 and has been referred to as the parent island from which Venice was populated, meaning Torcello is even older than Venice and was a very important island in ancient times, a town with a cathedral and bishops even before Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica was built. After the downfall of the Western Roman Empire, Torcello was one of the first lagoon islands to be populated. First settled by the inhabitants of Altino (Altinum), a once-important Roman town. Led by their bishop, they fled successive invasions, which laid waste their mainland homes, and built their new town on this island.
Torcello benefited from and maintained close cultural and trading ties with Constantinople; however, being a rather distant outpost of the Eastern Roman Empire, it could establish de facto autonomy from the eastern capital. The tiny island rapidly grew in importance as a political and trading center; in the 10th century it had a population often estimated at 10,000-35,000 people, with 20,000 the most commonly cited estimate. In pre-Medieval times, Torcello was a more powerful trading center than Venice. Torcello’s economic backbone and its harbor developed quickly into an important re-export market in the profitable east-west-trade, which was largely controlled by Byzantium during that period.
In a dusty piazza stands one of the most impressive and interesting churches in the Venice area, the Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta founded in the 7th century. A section of the earlier mosaic floor can be viewed through a glass panel. On the walls and apse are some fantastic mosaics which would make the trip worthwhile on their own: a lovely Madonna and Child on a gold background, and a scary depiction of the Last Judgement with details such as serpents crawling through skulls. The Church of Santa Fosca, next door, is very different but also lovely. The small church, which dates to the 11th century, is built to a Greek-cross plan and fronted by a later portico. The campanile (belltower) of the basilica is a steep climb up sloping ramps, but the view over the island and lagoon is worth the effort. The museum in the square is also worth visiting; it has a small collection of archaeological finds and historical items from the cathedral, the lagoon and the surrounding area.
Today, the main reason for visiting Torcello is to see the spectacular Byzantine mosaics
in the 7th century Cathedral.
Over the years, however, Venice grew more important while Torcello found its waterways silting up and its swamps malarial. Eventually the residents of Torcello, who had survived, packed their bags and took them south over the lagoon to sites nearer the hub of trade and politics. Buildings were plundered for building material so that little remains of its once splendid palaces, churches, and monasteries. Nowadays just a handful of residents remain; the town's piazza is overgrown with grass and weeds, and the two churches of Torcello stand in magnificent isolation.
Somewhat incongruously, the island is also home to a world-famous Inn and restaurant, called Locanda Cipriani. Yes, that Cipriani, of various "Cipriani's" and Harry's Bar's around the world—not to mention Harry's Bar in downtown Venice (the original Cipriani's first name was Arrigo, which is Italian for "Harry.").
Locanda Cipriani on Torcello was consecrated as a literary myth due to Ernest Hemingway living there in the fall of 1948. Joined in Venice by his wife Mary, Hemingway, already a legend, decided to spend the whole month of November at Locanda Cipriani, dividing his time between duck hunting, and writing his novel “Across the River and Into the Trees”. The impressions and memories of that November in Torcello are forever imprinted on the pages of his novel. Hemingway returned to Locanda Cipriani on Torcello with his wife Mary in the spring of 1954 during their stay in Venice and following their unfortunate experience in Africa.
Now, about where we will be staying during our Venezia – La Serenissma June 3-13, 2019 tour, Villa San Giovanni, or what the Venetian's call, Villa Baslini. I spent the morning with Angelica Baslini and her mother (86 yrs. old) at the villa. The villa is actually on a smaller separate island of San Giovanni Evangelista, connected to Torcello by a small bridge, Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge). Another long, historical story I'll have to tell you another time.
As we talked I was told that Villa San Giovanni / Baslini is the only villa left on Torcello. The property began as The Monastery of St. John the Evangelist built in 640, an ancient ecclesiastical complex inhabited by Benedictine nuns, in which a basilica (there are ruins in the garden) where the preserved remains of Santa Barbara were brought and dedicated to the convent of nuns. The much larger complex stood on the property on an islet to the south-west of the square, accessible only over the famous Devil's Bridge, or by water. The villa is the lone remaining structure.
The first written document concerning the monastery is in the chronicle of Giovanni Diacono (Giovanni from Venice), who asserts that in 1009 the relics of St. Barbara of Nicomedia were transferred to St. John’s, donated a few years earlier by Maria Argyropolis, niece of the Byzantine emperor and sister-in-law of the then Abbess Felicita, daughter of Venetian doge Pietro Orseolo II.
Ancient map of the island showing The Monastery of St. John the Evangelist in the lower right hand corner. Also notice the name of the island as it use to be called "Torzelo".
Ancient drawing of the monastery as it looked in the 11th century
In 1168, under the Abbess Amabile Keulo, began a lively period of acquisitions that saw an exponential increase in its properties; there were acquisitions in Torcello; houses, plots of arable land and mud flats and two salt pans (Natural salt flats are flat expanses of ground covered with salt and other minerals, shining white under the sun) were added, one donated in 1178 by the Bobiçum brothers, the other set up in 1180 by the same nuns on one of their waterways.
The economic increase was continued by Abbess Adoalda Marcello, who lived in the first half of the 13th century. During this time two powerful noble families emerged, related to each other, the Barozzi and the Gradenigo families, who in the following centuries contributed to the life of the monastery by giving it Abbesses and Procurators.
Angelica told me that history records that in 1810 the Napoleonic edicts affected the Monastery of San Giovanni. The buildings became State Property, were abandoned and demolished. But she said, her family history says Napoleon ordered the nun’s quarters destroyed but spared the ‘guest house’ of the monastery, which her family later purchased as their summer home. Today few traces survive from the monastery with the exception of Villa Baslini.
The Baslini Family is a noble family. Angelica’s grandfather, Dr. Ernesto Baslini, founded an industrial chemical company in 1922, which grew substantially over the years and still exists today. Her father Antonio was an Italian politician spending over 20 years in the Italian Parliament.
An amazing, historic villa, sitting on ancient, historic land on an historic island in the Venetian lagoon with a beautiful swimming pool (the only swimming pool in the Veneto region) overlooking not only the surrounding area of Torcello and its salt pans, but also the nearby island town of Burano with its brightly colored buildings.
Looking forward to our Venezia – La Serenissima June 3 -13, 2019 tour at historic Villa Baslini, an historic property on a now quiet island that in its day was the power that became Venice!
We still have a few couples spots (double occupancy) for our Tuscan Adventure tour from August 18-28, 2019 at our villa in Tuscany near Certaldo and Gambassi Terme. Savings of up to $1000 per couple still available. Email us from our website to find out more.
Ciao . . . a presto,
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.