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Venetian Islands

[Venice - First Impressions]  [The Story Of Venice]  [The Stones Of Venice]  [The Painters Of Venice]  [The Heart Of Venice]  [St Mark's Church]  [The Doges' Palace]  [The Grand Canal]  [Some Venetian Churches]  [Venetian Islands]  [More Articles About Venice] 

( Originally Published Mid-1900's )

St Lazaro

The steamer which plies every few minutes between Venice and the Lido passes on its way from Venice two islands, the first of which is occupied by a lunatic asylum, and the second of which takes its name, St Lazaro, from the lazar house, or lepers' hospital, which at one time stood on this island.

Till 1716 St Lazaro belonged to the Armenian Mechitarists, a brotherhood of scholarly monks. Byron buried himself in this monastery for some months in 1816 in order to study Armenian; indeed, he went so far as to help the monks prepare an Armenian grammar. "By way of divertisement," he wrote to Moore,

I am studying daily, at an Armenian monastery, the Armenian language. I found that my mind wanted something craggy to break upon; and this-as the most difficult thing I could discover here for an amusementI have chosen, to torture me into attention.

The room where Byron stayed and the inkstand which he used during his stay at the monastery are still shown to visitors.


After a week or so of busy sightseeing in Venice it is extremely pleasant to take the steamer to Chioggia, where there is nothing to see except the lovely lines of the Euganean hills and the coloured sails of the Chioggian fishing-boats.

Chioggia, however, would be worth visiting if only for the sake of the return journey to Venice in the evening. The view of the Salute and the Campanile rising slowly from the Adriatic will probably tempt the reader to challenge the plea put forward in the first chapter of this book that one's first view of Venice should be from the doors of the railway station looking out on to the Grand Canal.


Murano, Burano, and Torcello may be reached by the steamer which starts from the Fondamenta Nuove. Murano is the seat of the Venetian glass-blowing industry. The visitor is allowed, nay, is encouraged, to visit the furnaces where the glass is made, and he should certainly not miss the opportunity of watching the enchanting process whereby molten blobs are transformed into the most delicate and fantastic of glassy shapes.

Ruskin devotes one of the best chapters in The Stones of Venice to the church of Santi Maria e Donato at Murano. He describes with loving thoroughness the decoration of coloured marble on the exterior of the apse, a most interesting example of twelfth-century Lombard architecture. The date, September 1 1140, may still be read on the fine mosaic pavement within the church itself.

The church is said to have been completed in 970 and rebuilt about 1100 It was thoroughly restored in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Byzantine mosaic of the Madonna in the hollow of the apse is the theme of a beautiful passage in The Stones of Venice.


The only interesting thing in Burano is the Royal School of Lace-making, which employs about 400 girls. Burano lace is famous-and expensive.

To the south of Burano lies the little island of San Francesco del Deserto with its cypress groves. The Franciscan colony on this island was founded in 1228. According to tradition, St Francis, on returning from the East, where he had attempted to convert the Sultan, stayed in an oratory on this island. The birds of the island gathered round him and began to sing.St Francis stood in the midst of them, recited his office, and commanded the birds to be silent. "Whereupon they kept silence, nor did they depart until he had given them leave."


Torcello, which lies to the north-east of Murano, some seven miles from Venice, was peopled by refugees from Altinum and Padua flying from the fury of Attila, and the island was accordingly christened Altinum Novum.

Torcello was once a busy town, but if today you climb the Campanile beside the noble, if forlorn, cathedral you will see few traces of its ancient prosperity. To the south the towers of Venice rise from the sea, Venice, daughter of Torcello, "Mother and daughter, you behold them both in their widowhood."

Ruskin climbed the Campanile, and in a memorable passage set down the thoughts which came to him as he looked across the lagoon and the "waste of wild sea-moor" to "the misty band of mountains touched with snow."

Thirteen hundred years ago, the grey moorland looked as it does this day, and the purple mountains stood as radiantly in the deep distances of evening; but on the line of the horizon there were strange fires mixed with the light of sunset, and the lament of many human voices mixed with the fretting of the waves on their ridges of sand. The flames rose from the ruins of Altinum ; the lament from the multitude of its people, seeking, like Israel of old, a refuge from the sword in the paths of the sea.

The cattle are feeding and resting upon the site of the city that they left ; the mower's scythe swept this day at dawn over the chief street of the city that they built, and the swathes of soft grass are now sending up their scent into the night air, the only incense that fills the temple of their ancient worship. Let us go down into that little space of meadowland.

The octagonal church beside the cathedral is San Fosca, which dates from the twelfth century; the ruins of the baptistery date from 1008.

And now let us enter the cathedral itself.

The cathedral contains two mosaics, which represent respectively the Last Judgment and the Blessed Virgin. Ruskin considered that the capitals of the great shafts were among the best he had seen, and were examples of perfectly calculated effect from every touch of the chisel. He also commends the delicate carving of the chancel screen. He draws attention to the "luminousness" which distinguishes this church from the gloom of St Mark's and the dark shadows of other basilicas of the same date.

And there is something especially touching in our finding the sunshine thus freely admitted into a church built by men in sorrow. They did not need the darkness ; they could not perhaps bear it. There was fear and depression upon them enough, without a material gloom. They sought for comfort in their religion, for tangible hopes and promises, not for threatenings or mysteries.

Behind the altar there is a stern semicircular recess with three ranks of seats raised above each other, and commanded by the bishop's throne in the centre. The bishop and the presbyters face the people and, as Ruskin tells us, " discharge literally in the daily service the functions of bishops or overseers of the flock of God." As he reminds us, the church in those early days was most frequently symbolized in the image of a ship, of which the bishop was the pilot, an image which we unconsciously recall when we speak of the nave of the church (Latin navis = a ship).

The worshippers of Torcello may well have looked upon their church as a real ark of salvation from the horrors which had depopulated their home, for they had seen "the actual and literal edifice of the church raise up itself like an ark in the midst of the waters." Torcello was the mother of Venice, and "if the stranger would yet learn," writes Ruskin,

in what spirit it was that the dominion of Venice was begun, and in what strength she went forth conquering and to conquer, let him not seek to estimate the wealth of her arsenals or number of her armies, nor look upon the pageantry of her palaces, nor enter into the secrets of her councils ; but let him ascend the highest tier of the stern ledges that sweep round the altar of Torcello, and then, looking as the pilot did of old along the marble ribs of the goodly temple ship, let him repeople its veined deck with the shadows of its dead mariners, and strive to feel in himself the strength of heart that was kindled within them, when first, after the pillars of it had settled in the sand, and the roof of it had been closed against the angry sky that was still reddened by the fires of their homesteads, first, within the shelter of its knitted walls, amidst the murmur of the waste of waves and the beating of the wings of seabirds round the rock that was strange to them, rose that ancient hymn, in the power of their gathered voices:



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