There are said to be 30,000 islands in the Mediterranean Sea, and not one of them, I swear, is more numinous than Torcello, in the wastes of the Venetian lagoon. It is not the most beautiful of them, not the most spectacular, not the most romantic, certainly not the trendiest. It is not even the loneliest, because although only a handful of people live upon it, the well-populated island of Burano is bang next door and Venice itself is, so to speak, just down the road.

But surely not one of those other 29,999 islands possesses Torcello’s suggestive, almost insidious, fascination. By the nature of things you must take a boat to get there, preferably early on a summer morning, and the moment your craft swings into the narrow canal that leads to the heart of the island, it is as though you are entering another sensibility. There is a hush about it, and it is the hush of great age, experience, pride, disillusion, faith and emptiness. Most of the island is green, flat emptiness, with an isolated farmstead here and there, orchards and wide fields of vegetables, and your boat winds gently up the narrow channel, under an old stone bridge without parapets, past two or three eating-houses, until at the top of the canal it reaches a sort of village.

A sort of village? There is nothing quite like it on earth. When, after the fall of Rome, invading barbarians from the north laid waste to the nearby mainland, Christian refugees fled into the safety of the lagoon. Some came to this particular island, and made a city of it. For several centuries Torcello thrived mightily as a trading centre, and old portrayals show the whole place alive with busy streets, towers, docks, grand houses and places of religion. In the end, though, Venice replaced it as the principal settlement of the lagoon, and it fell into a long decay.

Now all that is left of its grandeur is that queer huddle of buildings at the top of the canal, surrounding a little grassy piazza that is oddly sprinkled with old stones and well-heads. There is a quaint little town hall, once a palace, now a museum, a creeper-clad inn at the water’s edge, a domed octagonal church, and half a dozen small souvenir stalls stocked with lace from Burano, carnival masks from Venice and miscellaneous fridge magnets. Above it all stands the chief reminder of Torcello’s glorious past and fateful origins, the mighty red-brick campanile of its cathedral, one of the seminal buildings of the world.

And surrounding it is that fascinating hush. The stall attendants are mostly sitting around on chairs when we get there, or unpacking their wares, and there is nobody else in the piazza. The day’s tourists from Venice have not arrived yet, and we ourselves, at a loose end, are free to wander among the neighbouring lanes, waterways, orchards and gardens that are the remains of great Torcello.

There are no cars on the island, no tarred roads, and away from the piazza there is nothing much to see. Over the empty fields the waters and marshlands of the lagoon always show. If we look to the south we can make out the tantalising silhouette of Venice itself; if the day is very clear we may see the mainland mountains to the west, sometimes tipped with snow; but it is part of the magic of Torcello that the island somehow narrows one’s focus. The high blue sky above, streaked with jet-trails, the desolation of the ambient lagoon, somehow make the little things around us seem clearer, more interesting too.

What’s this? A familiar old woodlouse, just like home, labours across a stone slab, and we find ourselves watching its progress, enthralled. We pause to wonder if the wild asparagus that lines our path tastes the same as the kind we eat at home, and decide that yes, mmm, we think so. Stop! Don’t move! See that little lizard on the gatepost? Could that be a heron, that big white bird among the reeds, or is it an egret? How this little red beetle scurries! A swoop of swallows, a crab in muddy pool, a cock-crow, a hastening beetle – everything seems new, everything seems distinct in the clarifying peace of this island.

But it is midday, and in the distance we see a long line of apparent pilgrims making their way to the piazza from the landing-stage. They are the day’s first tourists from Venice, and we hasten to follow them. They look much like other tourists, all ages, all nationalities, and they chatter noisily as they walk. But once there, in that small green square beside the cathedral, something seems to change them. Torcello does it.

Here a middle-aged Japanese lady settles herself complacently, quite naturally, into the medieval stone chair traditionally known as Attila’s Throne. Here a young man in jeans and T-shirt lies flat on his back between the pillars of the cathedral arcade with his baby fast asleep upon his chest. An excited horde of French schoolchildren settles into absorbed attention as their teacher explains the setting to them. Germans and Britons, Italians and Chinese, they buy their ice-creams at the ice-cream stall, they lie on the grass in each others’ arms, they do all the things that tourists habitually do but they seem to do it with an unexpected grace, and when they presently leave, I notice, they leave no litter behind.

Has the style of Torcello touched them, or has it merely altered my own vision, making me see them in a softer light, as I watched that labouring woodlouse? Either way, it is time for us, as the afternoon draws on, to enter the source of its influence, the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. The building marks an architectural and ideological watershed, because here, at the conception of Venice, the styles and faiths of east and west met: but above all it is a spiritual declaration, because it was built and consecrated, 14 centuries ago, by a proud people in distress. It was a haven, and the great stone shutters of its windows seem designed to keep at bay not just the winds and the waters of the lagoon but all the forces of cruelty.

It is not a comfortable church. At one end of the nave a vast and dreadful mosaic warns us of sin’s dreadful consequences, with devils stoking the eternal fires of hell. At the other end, above the high altar, a steep flight of steps leads to the throne of the Patriarch with an almost fascist suggestion of authority. And floating high in the apse behind is the presiding image of Torcello, the mosaic Teotoca Madonna, the God-Bearer. She stands there tall and elegant with her baby in her arms, an image of profoundest beauty, and at first sight an image of purest comfort too, in opposition to those pitch-fork demons. Look more closely, though, and you will see that while the infant Christ up there has his arms open in joyful blessing, down his mother’s cheek a tear is trickling.

For yes, to the numen of Torcello there is an undeniable tinge of melancholy, but it is not sadness. When evening comes let us go down to the inn for our supper – sea-bass and baby artichokes, I dare say, washed down with a lively prosecco – and afterwards wander once more around the piazza. The last tourist has long left, and there is nobody about but us. The souvenir stalls are all swaddled with canvas and string. No lamp burns in the cathedral. We allow ourselves a last indulgent sprawl in the Throne of Attila, a last jelly baby perhaps, in homage to the gods of tourism, and then, soothed and sleepy, potter back to the exquisite simplicity of the inn, and go upstairs to bed.

Outside, the silence of Torcello is absolute. Not a woodlouse stirs.

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Details

Jan Morris stayed at Locanda Cipriani (www.locandacipriani.com), an inn with six rooms and a renowned restaurant, which in summer spills out onto a terrace and garden. Doubles from €200, including breakfast. For more general information see www.turismovenezia.it

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