The islands of Venice, a cruise through history, art and crafts

It’s so easy for me to get caught up in the feeling of a city like Venice, where everything is just beautiful color and gorgeous buildings that are so peaceful. You can roam around and get lost in the labyrinth. – Nanette Lepore

Venice’s islands are an integral part of the cultural, artistic and natural heritage of the city. Visiting Venice without saving some time for a trip to Murano, Burano, Torcello, Lido or the Island of Giudecca, means missing part of the show. It’s a little like going to see Othello and leave at the end of the second act of Rossini’s version, or at the end of the third act of Verdi’s one.

The islands that we are going to present are the most important ones among the more than 50 that are found in the Venetian lagoon. The islands provide tour services for tourists, perhaps the best way to get around and discover the main attractions in the area if you haven’t got much time. A guided tour to the islands of Venice gives you the opportunity to have a close look to the Murano glass makers, Venetian lace processing craft shops, the beautiful and historic churches on the Giudecca or the little edifying story of Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido. The Island of San Giorgio Maggiore and San Michele, perhaps the least important of those that we are going to present, are very special places too, where you can breathe a particular atmosphere. Torcello for its part is the least populated island, but also the most popular with tourists.

The islands can be easily reached by Venice’s usual public transport, boats and “vaporetti” which depart every 10 minutes from Fondamenta Nuove or Tronchetto.

Giudecca Island, between Churches and Mills

Actually, Giudecca can be properly defined a small archipelago rather than an island: it consists of the island of Giudecca, Sacca San Biagio and Sacca Fisola. For convenience, however, we will refer to it as an island that is located south of the historical centre of Venice, overlooking the Giudecca Canal and is part of the Sestiere of Dorsoduro.

This is mainly a residential area, which enjoys a great view of Venice from the Fondamenta, the long promenades overlooking the sea. The history of Giudecca is closely linked to that of Venice: much of its land has been reclaimed over time, it was first used to grow vegetable gardens, then as a space for commercial and industrial facilities, and finally, in the last decades, it has become a residential area. The main tourist attractions of the island of Giudecca are several important churches and some civil architectures, such as Molino Stucky and Casa dei Tre Oci.

The Church of the Redeemer dates back to 1576 and was built to thank the Good Lord for the end of a plague epidemic. It was built by Palladio and inside hosts beautiful frescoes and paintings including works by Veronese. The Church of the Redeemer is linked to the homonymous Feast, held on the third Sunday in July, when the Giudecca Canal is set up with a bridge of boats up to the Church of the Holy Spirit in Dorsoduro, in order to allow the procession to flow. The other important church on Giudecca is Chiesa delle Zitelle, famous for the beautiful works of art that it contains, including several paintings by Greek painter Aliense, but also because it is the site of a major convention center. Don’t miss the Church of St. Euphemia, one of the oldest churches in Venice, dating back to the 8th or 9th century.

Among the civil buildings on Giudecca Island, are Casa dei Tre Oci, which dates back to the early 20th century and is famous because it’s been the setting for several scenes from the film The Anonymous Venetian directed in 1970 by Enrico Maria Salerno, and starring Tony Musante and Florinda Balkan. And finally, it’s impossible not to see it from afar, the imposing Molino Stucky, built in 1985 by Swiss entrepreneur John Stucky, who wanted to take advantage of the waterfront location to facilitate the arrival and departure of wheat and ground. However the mill, which in full swing employed more than 1,500 people, eventually became too difficult to manage. It remained in disuse for some time, then in 2000 it was taken over by Acqua Marcia group in collaboration with the Hilton hotel chain to be renovated and converted into a conference center and, of course, a hotel.

Curiosities about the Island of Giudecca: the origin of the name “Giudecca” is quite obscure. At one time the island was called Spinalonga because of the elongated shape that makes it look like a fish bone. According to some, the modern name derives from the fact that this place once hosted the first Jewish Ghetto of the city, while others state that it derives from zudegà, which means “judged” in ancient Venetian dialect, in relation to the lands that were given in compensation during the 9th century to Venetian families unjustly sent into exile. Finally, some say that “Giudecca” is derived from the ancient leather manufacturing businesses found in the area, and in particular is related to zuecchi, vegetable fibers used in the processing stages.

Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, the Set of The Merchant of Venice

The Island of San Giorgio Maggiore is the easternmost offshoot of the Giudecca Island. It is part of San Marco District, unlike the rest of Giudecca which belongs administratively to the Dorsoduro District.

The island’s history is linked essentially to the Benedictine monks. In 982, the Doge Tribuno Memmo, who owned this piece of land with his family, gave the island to a monk, Giovanni Morosini, who reclaimed the area and built a monastery, the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. In 1565, the ubiquitous architect Andrea Palladio from Vicenza oversaw the construction of the Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore (from whose top, accessible by elevator, you can admire a spectacular view over Venice.) After the Napoleonic period and Austro-Hungarian Empire, when the island became a military garrison, San Giorgio Maggiore becomes the property of the Italian State: in 1951 the monastery and neighboring areas were entrusted to the Giorgio Cini Foundation which after a major redevelopment, inaugurated the Teatro Verde (1954.) Today the island is host to the Sports Center of Excellence – Compagnia della Vela of Venice. In front of the dock where the ferries connecting to Venice arrive, there’s an excellent bakery which has several shops throughout the city: Rosa Salva is a place where you can enjoy delicious puff pastries, tarts, biscuits and homemade cakes.

Curiosities about the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore: it has been one of the most important sets during the filming of Il mercante di Venezia (The Merchant of Venice) directed by Michael Radford in 2004 and starring Al Pacino in the role of Shylock. Specifically, the scenes filmed inside the monastery of San Giorgio were those that Shakespeare had set in Portia’s Palace.

Island of San Michele, Resting Place of Famous People

San Michele, Island in the lagoon of Venice, is made up of two islands, San Michele and San Cristoforo della Pace. It is famous because since the early 1800’s, it host the Monumental Cemetery of Venice. The cemetery, quite popular with tourists and curious, is divided according to religions and faiths (Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) and contains the tombs of many famous people, both Italian and foreign, including the psychiatrist and neurologist Franco Basaglia, Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, Viennese mathematician and physicist Christian Doppler, Venetian writer Giustina Renier Michiel, American essayist-poet Ezra Pound, and Russian composer Igor’ Stravinsky.

The island takes its name from St. Michael’s Church, built in the 10th century, and has been host to the prestigious Camaldolese library at the beginning of 1200. In the prison that Napoleon set up after removing the monastery were imprisoned, among others, also the Italian patriots Silvio Pellico and Pietro Maroncelli.

Curiosities about the Island of San Michele: a visit to the Monumental Cemetery on the Island of San Michele is a very attractive experience, especially because besides the graves of famous people, the cemetery is also full of mysteries. The most famous is about Sister Victoria Gregoris’ tomb, who died in 1947. Just before she passed away, the nun gathered her sisters to tell them that her body will have not be found in the tomb where she would have been buried. And indeed, when some years later the body was exhumed, no trace was found of the buried nun.

Murano, glass and much more

It’s one of those brands that has no boundaries, such as Coca Cola and Ferrari. This is Murano is synonymous with glass-manufacturing. And when you say “glass” it’s almost impossible not to think of or associate it with Murano. The island is actually a small archipelago of natural and artificial islands inhabited by 4,500 people.

The main sight of interest on the Island is the Cathedral of Saints Martia and Donato, (7th century) that hosts a beautiful mosaic of the Madonna dating back to the 12th century. Other important churches in Murano are the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli (built in 1188,) with the beautiful Carrara marble altar of the late 17th century, and the Church of St. Peter Martyr, built in 1438, destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1511: inside you can admire wonderful chandeliers, Murano glass chandeliers, of course. Among the civil architectures on Murano are Palazzo da Mula, where Gothic, Venetian and Byzantine styles perfectly blend together in the façade, and stone Lighthouse, built in 1934 to replace an iron one dating back to 1912.

But of course, tourists come to Murano especially to visit the Glass Museum, housed in Palazzo Giustiniani. Murano Glass Museum, opened in 1861, will assume greater importance in 1932 when many glassworks from other museums are collected and concentrated here. Even today, the collections are augmented through donations and bequests from glassworks companies on the island. Thanks to the many guided tours provided, visitors can explore the island and watch glass makers while they create their works using different techniques, especially solid or blown glass-work techniques.

Curiosities about the Island of Murano: the history of Murano takes in a specific date that decided the course of the centuries to come. This is 1291: when the Venetian Council decided that for safety reasons, all the glassmakers in the city had to close up. This is because the furnaces used in the manufacture of glass were causing many fires in the wooden houses of the Venetian Republic. In short time, all the glassmakers had to move out, and the selected destination was precisely Murano. In the following centuries the island also became a holiday destination for Venetian noble families: the premises and eating places of Murano were also frequented by the artists and writers who attended the many academies on the island.

Burano, the Island of Lace and Colorful Houses

Murano is for glass what Burano is for lace. The island of Burano is located in the northern part of the Lagoon of Venice, has about 2,700 inhabitants and is divided into Sestieri just like Venice: San Mauro, Giudecca, San Martino Sinistra, San Martino Destra, and Terranova. The island is in turn formed by four islands separated by canals, Rio Terranova, Rio Giudecca and Pontinello.

Legend has it that Burano was colonized in the early centuries after Christ by the inhabitants of the cities on the coast fleeing the Barbarians, especially the Huns and Lombards. After that, the fate of the small island has always been linked to that of Venice, through good times and bad. There are not many historic buildings of interest in Burano. The most important is the Church of San Martino (16th century) which holds the relics of Santa Barbara and where you can admire a beautiful Crucifixion by Tiepolo.

The production of Burano Lace is the main reason why this island is famous in the world and the origin of this activity is related to a legend. It is said that a fisherman, for sake of his beloved who lived in Burano, managed to resist the seductive song of the Sirens. The Queen of the Sea, to honor this devotion, gave him a crown of foam to adorn the head of his sweetheart. The girl’s friends, envious of such a lovely veil, tried to replicate it, thus giving rise to the manufacture of cotton yarn. It was the year 1700 A.D.

Curiosities about the Island of Burano: in addition to lace, Burano is also famous for the facades of houses painted in pastel colors, pink, blue, green, yellow, which create the color pattern of a rainbow. Why are the houses of Burano so colorful? There is no single answer to this question, but we can perhaps advance some assumptions. The most amusing, and also the most likely, is that the facades have been colored so that fishermen and boatmen could recognize their homes on foggy days (the fog is often very thick here.) Another hypothesis, perhaps a bit more composite, is that colors distinguished the different families of the town.

Torcello, a Strange Island

Torcello is a strange island. It has 14 inhabitants, but it’s visited by tens of thousands of tourists every year. Human settlement on the island has ancient origins. It is said that the inhabitants of the mainland escaping from the Langobards, took refuge here even before settling in Venice’s Insulae. Most came from Altino, which was called Turris because of a famous tower: hence the name of the new settlement, Turricellum, over time become Torcello.

Torcello is reached from Burano. Along the Fondamenta, close to the piers where vaporetti dock, there are several bars, restaurants and souvenir shops. From here you can admire Ponte del Diavolo (Devil’s Bridge,) famous because it is an unprotected, unsafe passageway that leads to the centre of the island.

One of the most famous places on Torcello is Locanda Cipriani, which has hosted celebrities of the likes of Queen Elizabeth II of England, Charles and Diana, Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway – who wrote his novel Across the River and Into the Trees here. On the main square of Torcello are the Council Palace and the Archives Palace. They both host the Museum of Torcello, which displays artifacts from the Byzantine and Medieval periods. On the same square also the Church of Santa Fosca is pretty interesting. Dates back to the 12th century and boasts a superb porch on five sides.

But surely the most important monument of the island is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, built between the late 800s and the end of the 11th century. A highlight is the lavish marble mosaic flooring portraying, among others, also an impressive Universal Judgment, believed to be the work of the Venetian-Byzantine school. The Cathedral is the oldest monumental building in the Lagoon and is flanked by a bell tower from whose top, reachable by a flight of steps, you can enjoy a terrific view.

Curiosities about the Island of Torcello: Torcello is surrounded by many small islands that tourists visit privately. Some islands have disappeared, as Ammiana, where once there were eight churches, and Costanziaca, named after the Byzantine Emperor Constans and abandoned after its progressive silting. Among the islands still present, one of the most interesting is San Arian, with the remains of an important monastery used as an ossuary since 1565, the Saline, used until the beginning of 1900 as salt pans, and the Cura, that could be a last remnant of Costanziaca.

The Lido: Cinema and Beaches with Natural Dunes

Lido di Venezia is an islands of the Lagoon: an 11 Km long strip of land with an average width of 500 mt. Lying between Venice, the lagoon and the open sea, the Lido has few settlements: the town of Lido has about 15 000 inhabitants, Malmocco has 1,100 inhabitants, and Alberoni is home to a little less than a thousand residents. The outermost points of the island are Malmocco to the south and San Nicolò to the north. The residential area mainly extends in the central part and overlooks the lagoon, while in the east, over the sea, there are lots of beaches, both free and equipped.

The island reserves many surprises. For example, it is rich in places of moderate interest, such as the Art Nouveau buildings in the residential area, in the center of the island near San Nicolò, the Gran Viale Maria Elisabetta that joins the lagoon to the sea, and the old church in San Nicolò built in the 17th century. Hushed, green spaces, a quiet environment and beautiful beaches with natural dunes are the peculiarities that have made the Lido of Venice so attractive and popular with intellectuals in search of peace. Some of the most famous residents have included English poet George Gordon Byron, and German writer Thomas Mann.

If you ask a tourist what is the first thing that comes up in his mind when someone says “Venice Lido” the answer is only one: Venice Film Festival. Palazzo del Cinema, the main venue of the Venice Film Festival, dates back to 1932 and has undergone several renovations over the years. Unfortunately, the recent history of the Palace is a bad example of administrative and real estate management. Indeed, there are plans to expand the facilities of the Film Festival since 2004, but nothing has been done so far. Or rather, in the meantime unnecessary call for tenders have been issued, more than € 80 million have been spent, over a hundred trees have been killed, amid protests from citizens and environmental groups. After all this, Palazzo del Cinema remains unrealized, and still inadequate to accommodate the thousands of people who every year participate in the days of the exhibition. It’s an endless story, started about ten years ago and today, after scandals and problems, no answers nor solutions have been found yet.

Curiosities about the Lido of Venice: San Nicolò has a small tourist airport, the Nicelli Airport. This airport was built in 1915 at the beginning of World War I in order to protect Venice from bombardments and avoid the destruction of the city’s artistic heritage. After the war, the Nicelli Airport became an important port with links to Vienna, Munich, Florence, Rome and Brindisi. At the outbreak of World War II, Nicelli assumes military importance for its links with East Africa, Russia and the Balkans. At the end of World War II and until the early 2000s, the airport underwent a period of crisis: at the beginning of the new century Enav (National Air Navigation Services,) restructures the airport with new hangars, a new tower control and new services. Today, Nicelli airport hosts large events such as concerts, as an airport for tourists flights and flight school, but also for the takeoff of helicopters that take tourists around the skies of the lagoon.

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