A man told me once that he found Torcello “dead as old bones.” He was speaking, though, as a Los Angelinos, to whom such a half-abandoned place, once a thriving municipality with heaps of money, may well offer funereal vibrations. Actually, by the standard of these generally sterile waters Torcello is like an animated oasis.
Dusty lanes take me through its fields, past brackish back canals, through plantations of sunflowers sagging with the weight of their blossoms, besides meadows of indeterminable vegetables and indefinable salad plants, where solitary men are still laboring away. Up a reedy creek, a fisherman rows his boat from the lagoon, standing cross-oared in the old Venetian way.
So night falls, and I feel myself enfolded in velvet privacy among the waters. All alone I wander after dinner through the quiet shadowy monuments of Torcello’s lost consequence, its domes and its arcades, its crumbled pillars and indecipherable plaques, its campanile half-hidden in the darkness above. There is nobody about but me, unless some of the backpackers have unrolled their sleeping bags beneath the cathedral cloister; only me, the mosquitoes, the frogs, which leap around my feet and the little bats that forage in and out of the lamplight.
In the morning, the swallows have taken over, whirling dizzily around the bell tower and the chimney pots. Now, after breakfast, I look once more at the buildings. I have known this island for over 40 years, but I feel it my duty. Besides, they are not only few, but also marvelous. It was to this sedgy island, fifteen centuries ago, that the first off all the Venetians came as fugitives; the little cluster of buildings that is Torcello now represents the true beginning of all that we mean, all the dazzle and the beauty, all the power and the fizz and the sadness, when we speak the name of Venice.
Noon, time for another meal. I ate my way into Torcello with the jet set; I eat my way out with the Italians, for the people who order their seafood or spaghetti at the Osteria al Ponte del Diavolo come mostly from Padua, Vicenza, Treviso, or Venice. This gives the restaurant an organic, family feel, very pleasant to take with a glass of wine and one of the rough rolls that, distributed from table to table out of big wicker baskets, constitutes Torcello’s very bread of life. The conversation and wine flow. Imperceptibly turns the cycle of the island’s life. I am hardly through the cheese when looking up across the patio, I catch sight of today’s boatload of cosmopolitans, looking just like yesterday’s, sailing well-fed back to Venice from the locanda up the way.