Visit Torcello to see where it all began
Having just returned from a most enjoyable trip to Venice, I've encountered a few people who might be planning their first visit, so I thought I would list a few things which someone visiting for the first time ought to see.
But to begin with, why visit Venice? What's so special? For me, there are several reasons. It is very beautiful, probably the most beautiful city on earth. The main island is small, so that all the lovely things are packed very close together. It is entirely pedestrianised, as all the vehicular traffic is on the water, which means that unlike anywhere else, the entire city is laid out on a human scale, adapted for the pedestrian travelling at 3 km/h rather than the driver speeding along at a minimum of 20 km/h. In that sense, as enlightened planners today try to reverse our dependency on cars, it also provides a model for the city of tomorrow. And although the place is packed with the art of the past, there is also an abundance of the modern and contemporary.
Venice also has an interesting history which provides the backdrop for what we see today. It began its existence at the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire, after 400, when refugees from invading barbarians, the likes of Attila the Hun, settled in the low-lying islands of the lagoon, and the best way for the visitor to get a sense of this is to visit the island of Torcello in the northern part of the lagoon.
Torcello was one of the islands to be settled by the early refugees and became the principal settlement of the lagoon, an important trading centre, and the seat of the local bishop. However from the 12th century the lagoon around the island became a malarial swamp, and it was eventually abandoned by most of the population. Today the principal monument is the cathedral, founded in 639, but built over the centuries, with many of the main buildings and mosaics dating from the 11th century onwards.
The boat trip from Venice to Torcello takes about 45 minutes. Depending on the time of day, you might need to change at the island of Burano, so it's quite a long trip, but it allows you get a sense of the immensity of the lagoon, the sort of low lying islands on which the early settlers had to build their home.
On Torcello, they built their cathedral, the oldest in the Venetian islands, with its beautiful mosaics of the Virgin, Christ, and the last Judgement, which are among the finest examples of their kind in Italy. It's also worth climbing up the bell tower for an aerial view of the surroundings. From this vantage point you can appreciate the immensity of the lagoon, with the shallow water that protected the inhabitants from seaborne invasion, the navigable channels marked by bricole, those characteristic wooden tripods, which could be removed in times of peril.
I can't think of anywhere else in the world where you can get such a feel for the earliest days and the origins of a city and a nation. Because although Venice is today is a city within the Republic of Italy, it was previously an independent state in its own right, with territories on the Italian mainland and overseas possessions in the Mediterranean. The Venetian Republic was founded and 697, and lasted for 1100 years until 1797 when it was conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte, a period of existence as a political entity that is longer than most states in Europe today. And it grew out of an unpromising environment such as the one you see around you.