venice – Islands Of Burano, Torcello, And S. Francesco Del Deserto

THE journey to Murano is very easily made even by gondola between the cool of the day and sunset, but that to Burano, Torcello, and S. Francesco del Deserto is somewhat more formidable. This group of islands, the most beautiful and the most interesting in the whole length of lagoons, lies some seven miles or so to the northeast of Venice. It is true that Burano and Torcello are easily reached by steamer indeed, a boat leaves the Riva every day about two o’clock and returns before dusk ; but though this may be good enough for the mere tourist, it leaves one but little time to see either of the two larger islands and none at all to visit S. Francesco. Most people will, however, refuse to spend a night in Burano, and in that case the only satisfactory way is, I suppose, to take the steamer, though even in such circumstances I should prefer to leave Venice in a gondola, with two rowers, about eight o’clock or earlier, to spend the day among the islands and to row back with songs at twilight. For myself, however, I confess neither of these plans had any appeal. I first saw Torcello from Murano, going by barge and sailing thither, and having once set eyes upon it, my whole thought was to return thither as soon as possible and to remain there how often one determines on this I—for ever. I was sick of Venice, that was the truth—sick of her noise and her tourists and her modern bustle, the fight with the steamers on the Grand Canal, the struggle every morning to get by the touts of the shopkeepers in the Piazza sick of the sirens of the factories and the guns of the Italian fleet, “L’ armata d’ Italia Bella e Terribile,” as the Mayor of Venice called it in his proclamation which was placarded all over the city sick most of all of my own disappointment. It was not that I did not feel the beauty and charm of the place, but that I was too much crowded upon by alien things to enjoy it. Murano was, I soon discovered, but a very poor refuge. I knew I could not hold out there for long, and I was thinking already of Castelfranco or Burano when one summer morning, by chance, I went aboard that great barge and we sailed out to Torcello shabbily with a cargo of red pots. And when I had seen it I knew that I had found a true refuge at last.

But it is not thus the traveller will, as a rule, come to Torcello. He will leave Venice either by steamer or by gondola and will come first to Burano, where, if he come by steamer, he will have half an hour to spend, and then will go on to Torcello, whence after another half-hour he will set out again for Venice. Such a traveller will have just this much in common with us, that he will go, if the tide serve by much the same road.

And that road is a marvel. To begin with, one proceeds much as though going to Murano, but when that red and green island is left behind, the whole loneliness of the lagoon closes upon one, the silence and the glitter and the sunshine over the far stretching waters make a world of their own which takes you, for all your modernity, completely to itself, till you are confounded with its quietness. It is a world of great and insecure distances, of mirage, of fantastic mists and soft compelling winds, and there are scattered strange and shapeless islands covered with golden grass that whispers in the wind just above the blue and opalescent waters, that lap upon the low shores, where there is no life but the life of birds and a human voice is seldom heard. This is the world of the lagoon, and it seems to stretch away for ever and to form, as in fact it does, a strange universe of its own. Sometimes, far away across the golden marsh, you will descry a sail red and flashing in the sun as it passes down an invisible road to or from Burano or Mestre to the sea ; but such a sail you will seldom or never speak : it will always remain a mystery to you, its road unknown, its business inconceivable. For a road in such a place as this seems the last thing you might look for ; and yet, as you soon discover, without a road, and that well defined, even in a barge you would certainly run ashore. Everywhere there are vast beacons standing high above the flood, and between them great piles bound with iron and often bearing the image or the shrine of a saint, the Blessed Virgin, S. Mark, S. Clement, or S. Peter, to keep you amid all the turnings and windings of the way, turnings that seem purpose-less, windings that seem to be part of a game for children, in the deep channel and in safety. To the experienced eye the road is plainly set by day and lighted too by night, if only by the little lamps of the shrines that are set above these lonely waters, and the barge, much more the pushful and noisy steamer, must keep to that road or go aground. It is only the light, adventurous gondola, so individual beside the collectivism of the steamer, that can to a large extent neglect the deep channel and take to the shallows where the grasses float and shine beneath the waters and the fish dart to and fro in the shadow of your boat and often truly between your fingers. And here it is that the gondolier attains to his full height, notation, and majesty. He towers upon the poop like a true lord or captain and becomes, in fact, the most notable landmark anywhere there; visible for miles across the golden marshes, piloting his black argosy to the islands of the blest.

It seems to me, as I look back upon them, that the hours spent thus amid the marshes and the islands upon the lagoon were by very much the most beautiful and the most precious of all those I passed in the Veneto. I found all I hoped for and much more than I deserved : songs that are hard to sing, but beautiful to hear, old words, old airs, old lullabys, a clear sky, a soft wind, and over all the sun shining in his splendour, without which all else is naught. So it was I came to the island of Burano, to the island of Baldassare Galuppi, one summer morning a little after dawn, where the men are fishermen and the women thread the delicate lace more precious than diamonds and pearls. You may see some fine antique lace for the altar in the church, the work of long ago and of an incredible beauty and loveliness ; but of all the Venetian arts, thanks to a great and noble lady, this is the least forgotten, so that you may see today in Burano in the little hands of some dark Buranetta as fine and fair lace in the making as ever was contrived of old, and this is the chief sight in Burano. Let us rejoice at it.

Venice, or rather the island of Burano, has been famous for its ” point ” lace since the sixteenth century, and we may perhaps fix the date of its origin by the sumptuary laws of the Republic in the fifteenth century, when Venice came at last to be a city of infinite luxury and wealth. In 1474 the Provveditori had proscribed certain jewels, and in 1514 the Republic regulated the toilettes of private individuals as jealously as it had already done that of the Dogaressa ; even the dresses of the courtesans were subject to law. It seems to have been at this period that lace came into fashion and grew in favour, till in the seventeeth century the Venetian ” point ” was invented. The character of this “punto di Venezia” consists, it seems, in ornaments worked in high relief, modelled with art, and disposed in petals superimposed by fantastic flowers of thread, rich, and marvellously worked and very delicate. All is done with the needle. But long before the invention of the ” point,” Venice was famous for its lace In 1483 lace was sent from Venice to England for the Coronation of Richard III, and in the first year of the sixteenth century so universal was the interest taken in the craft that several books were published upon it: such as “Esemplario di lavori ” (1529), ” Opera nova” (1530), ” Gli universals dei bei ricami” (1537), and in 1578 we have record of special orders sent to Venice by Bianca Capello against her marriage with Grand Duke Francesco of Tuscany.

The lace-makers of Venice had always been, since the fifteenth century, under the protection of the Dogaressa; thus Dandola, the wife of Doge Pasquale Malipiero, had protected the industry, as did later Morosina Morosini, wife of Doge Marino Grimani. It was at this period in the beginning of the seventeenth century that the craft was established at Burano. At that period the house of Ranieri and Gabrieli employed some six hundred persons in the making of lace. But in the decadence of the Republic the craft too decayed, and in 1845 it was only in the island of Burano that any lace was made at all. Twenty-seven years later, in 1872, it was here that, thanks to the noble work of the Contessa Adriana Marcello and the Principessa Maria Chigi-Giovanelli, the industry was revived. It happened in this way. The winter of 1872 was cold and stormy, the lagoons were icebound, and the unfortunate inhabitants of Burano, who for the most part are fishermen, were on the verge of starvation. The Pope and the King of Italy it was their first effort in common set the example of subscribing to the fund then raised for the islanders. By means of concerts and benefit performances at the theatres throughout Italy a large sum of money was raised more, in fact, than was actually necessary to supply present needs. With the surplus Signor Paolo Fambri, who had organized the national subscription, conceived the idea of reviving the ancient industry for which Burano had been so famous. His plan was enthusiastically taken up by the Contessa Adriana Marcello and the Principessa Maria Chigi-Giovanelli, who founded the first school of lace-making at Burano, to which later Queen Margherita, then Princess of Piedmont, gave her patronage. The Contessa Adriana Marcello especially devoted herself to the revival in Burano, for her husband, the Conte Alessandro Marcello, had already in the sixties attempted this very thing. The chief difficulty then, one of money, was removed, but there remained another, the question of the tradition. Did it exist any longer ? Did any living person, in fact, know how to make Burano point lace? After considerable search an old septuagenarian woman, Cencia Scarpariola, was found who still possessed the secret and the tradition of the old punto di Burano. Cencia, however, though she knew how to make the lace, was quite incapable of teaching her craft. The Signora Anna Bellorio d’ Este, mistress of the Burano school, gave herself up to the task of watching Cencia at work, and when she had thus learned the art she began to teach eight pupils. The school thus founded has never looked back. Whereas in 1880 it was able to earn some 34,327 lire, in 1906 it earned 154,802, and since 1904 it has established a dependent school at Chioggia, the two schools together employing some eight hundred makers. These girls are divided into seven classes, one of which is entirely composed of married women. A director, a mistress, and certain under-mistresses are responsible for the school, for the maintenance of discipline, and for the teaching of the craft, while three nuns occupy themselves with the education of the girls.

All this and much more the visitor will learn at the school, where he may also pass through the worknooms and see the girls at work. It was my good fortune to be led through this most excellent institution by a nun who had, I think, the most beautiful face I have ever seen. And yet it was not really its beauty that struck me most, but its serenity and a sort of light behind it which transfigured it and gave me a memory of the stars. Such people are the salt of the earth, but they are so rare that the world nowadays is in danger of losing its savour. When I looked at her and thought of her useful life, her humble endeavour, and pure, clean soul, and remembered the mob of women I had seen not long before at Westminster I began to be afraid. We need that face in England ; it is too rare there. We have our type beyond compare, it bears a child in its arms; but the pure and splendid woman that is denied motherhood we almost lack. When I saw her thus armed at all points, humble and serene, but very eager, I thought of Florence Nightingale ; but she, I suppose, is outmoded today; our young women would rather break a head than mend one.

It is but ten minutes in a gondola, even in what passes here for one it is little more, from Burano to the island of Torcello, and yet what a whole world of difference between the two islands ! Burano today is a place of some happiness, it is full of people, the children fill the streets, the women sing as they work at their lace in the deep old doorways. Even in the quietest piazzas there is always a hum of women’s voices as they sit at their delicate and beautiful work. And the people are gay too, and yet quiet, as though something had indeed passed into their lives from those white, intricate threads they turn so deftly and so softly into roses.

In Torcello I sometimes think there is only silence, a silence only made more audible by the wind among the ruins or the cicale among the vines, and yet there I have spent happier days than anywhere else in all the Veneto. It is there, as nowhere else in this wide country of fen and plain, that I have realized that I am really in Italy. How hard that often is in Venice !—which, I swear, any stranger dropped there suddenly from an airship might well take for German if he were to judge by the language he would hear. But in Torcello there is only silence, only silence and freedom, and a whole garden of vines, and a couple of old churches, and a crazy tall tower. Yet in that garden I have passed many a day of happiness, in that old church I have heard Mass with the children, on the tall and crazy tower I have waited for dawn, I have wished for evening.

Is it not in such doings, in such remembrances as these, that all true happiness abides ? Here in Torcello, at any rate, it is secure, abandoned on this ruined island, while in Venice you will too often search for it in vain.

It is true that there is next to nothing to see in Torcello an old and broken church, a ruin and a crazy tower ; but then what more can you need ? And if you need more are there not the waterways that sing and sob night and day, calling you, calling you to come and discover a ruined king dom, a desert island, and a whole world of forgotten things that the marsh guards and keeps from the destroying hands of men?

Yet though Torcello is so silent, and though it has, in fact, nothing to show you, if you stay long enough in the evening shadow when the tourists are all gone back to Venice on their steamer, when the children have finished their evening play, when the mothers are all busy with gossip and the goodmen are half asleep in their doorways, Torcello will tell you her story, and you will understand why the water is always calling you to come away, why there is so much silence, why the tower is so crazy, and one church broken and the other a ruin.

For Torcello was built in haste, in the midst of flight, founded upon fear. When the tall towers of Altinum were burned by Attila, when the city went up in flame, and no man thought of standing any more, but all men were in full flight for the marsh and the sea, they came to this island and hastily built what they could, and in memory of their towered home called the place Torcello, and from Torcello is Venice sprung. You may see it all from that crazy tower, where the door swings on its hinges in the evening wind, and no man passes by Altinum, Torcello, Venice, they all lie at your feet. Those who came so long ago and built the place had known what it was to be utterly dispossessed, to be beaten, to be beggared, to be dishonoured, and by barbarians. At last they had wondered where they should look for a hiding-place. And when by a sort of miracle they came to Torcello they rested and built in haste always in haste badly and with what material they could bring from their ruins, a church and a tower that should serve them and remind them a little of their home. Such, doubtless, is the origin of S. Fosca and the Cathedral of S. Maria founded in the seventh century, such, doubtless, was the beginning of that crazy tower. Then, later, a remnant, a little reassured, repaired, but still hastily, the Church of St. Mary, and repaired for it the Church of S. Fosca as Baptistery, which still lies in ruins beside it.

But why then did these poor folk, in such haste too, build two churches ? The legend answers us that when they were all come to Torcello, Our Lady and S. Fosca themselves revealed to the monk Mauro not only that these churches should be built, but where they should stand.

S. Fosca is small, almost unique, and very lovely even in ruin. As for the Cathedral of S. Mary, it is a basilica in the early style, supported by columns, and contains still a few remnants of an old glory. For on the western wall are six rows of twelfth century mosaics, and over the episcopal throne in the apse a beautiful Byzantine mosaic of the Blessed Virgin, while in the apse at the end of the right aisle are others of Christ and His Apostles and the Annunciation. All these things have been restored, but I think the reliefs on the ambones are untouched.

Such things as these are the ghosts of Torcello, they haunt us everywhere, and it is the same in the two tiny and pathetic museums. We have not come for these. We have come for Torcello herself, for the garden of vines and the wind in the rushes, the silence and the voices of the waterways. These alone would make Torcello worth any pilgrimage ; yet I have loved too the old churches and the crazy tower which were friends of mine and are full of peace.

I should certainly have found Torcello the most satisfying place in all the lagoon if I had not almost by chance found out S. Francesco del Deserto. I came upon it one morning when I had been to Burano to buy some necessary or other, and coming back in the very ancient flat bottomed dinghy that I used to explore the islands I spied out this low, long bank with its little white convent and dark cypresses, indeed, it was the cypresses that took my fancy. I found that I had come upon a sanctuary of S. Francis. Here it seems on this once quite desolate island he spent a time of recollection when he came to Venice. It is said by the friars, of whom about thirty remain, that he here repeated too the dear episode of Bevagna and preached to the Venetian birds as he did to those of Umbria. However this may be, S. Francesco del Deserto has a miracle of its own, for you are shown a tree there which is nothing else but the staff of the Saint which he thrust into the ground, when it took root and grew as you may see. In the convent the cell of S. Francis is shown, and you may spend many a pleasant afternoon in the two cloisters, one of which has a fine arcade and a well.

However, it is almost impossible for one to sleep on the island, and so one’s visits there come to be always a matter of going and returning. One can, however, imagine no more delicious spot in which, should you be a friar and love solitude, to spend the last superb autumn of your life.

“O solitudo Beato, O Beato solitudo.”