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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of Santa Maria Assunta on Torcello, Venice

What is Santa Maria Assunta?

The Church of Santa Maria Assunta well-preserved 11th-century basilica on the island of Torcello, Venice that was first established in the 7th century and contains relics of Saint Heliodorus.

Santa Maria Assunta

Santa Maria Assunta History

It’s almost impossible to imagine that the sleepy island of Torcello was once the largest settlement in the Venetian Lagoon. Today, it’s home to only a few inhabitants but archaeological evidence shows that people have lived here since the 2nd century AD. Early settlements were the homes of isolated fishing communities until the wider Veneto region was hit by successive barbarian invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries. As the Western Roman Empire declined, Germanic and Central Asian tribes were gradually able to capture Roman territory and the previous inhabitants were forced to move to safer territory.

Around 20 kilometres northeast of Venice lies the former city of Altinum. In the year 452, it was sacked by Attila the Hun and his army, and in the following centuries it was attacked by Germanic invaders. As a result, many of the city’s inhabitants fled to the lagoon and settled on Torcello.

According to one medieval chronicler, Paul, Bishop of Altinum led his fellow citizens to safety in the 7th century. As the invaders approached, a heavenly voice instructed him to climb Altinum’s tower, from which he spied the small island that would become their new home. The refugees named the island Torcello (or ‘Little Tower’) to commemorate the structure that enabled them to discover it. The settlers brought with them the body of Saint Heliodorus, their patron, who had been the first Bishop of Altinum.

Torcello, like Venice, became a place of refuge for successive waves of Veneti fleeing their unwelcome new neighbours. As its population grew, the island’s bishop was able to establish a new basilica with the patronage of the Byzantine emperor. Santa Maria Assunta was founded in 639, and Saint Heliodorus was buried beneath the High Altar. His relics, in their original Roman sarcophagus, are still on display, just in front of the church’s striking Byzantine apse mosaic, unrivalled even in Constantinople itself.

The basilica, along with many early buildings on Torcello, was constructed using the bricks, stone reliefs, lintels and paving stones that had been salvaged from fallen mainland cities such as Altinum. By the 10th century, Torcello had a thriving trading economy to rival Venice’s.

Santa Maria Assunta was rebuilt in the 11th century so as to accommodate Torcello’s expanding population; unbelievably, this then numbered between 10 and 20,000 people. However, some of the church’s original features remain. The pulpit is constructed from salvaged marble fragments. Whilst in the sanctuary, you can see the original dedicatory inscription from the 7th century. It’s the oldest surviving epigraphic record in the Venetian Lagoon.

Torcello grew out of the collapse of one city. When it in turn gradually failed from the 13th century onwards, the up-and-coming city of Venice absorbed its economy and population. Most of the island’s beautiful Byzantine architecture was dismantled and used to expand Venice, just as the citizens of Altinum had recycled their old buildings when they moved to Torcello. Santa Maria Assunta, along with the grave of Saint Heliodorus, is now one of the last relics of the island’s heyday.

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