Torcello is a quiet and sparsely populated island at the northern end of the Venetian Lagoon. It is considered the oldest continuously populated region of Venice, and once held the largest population of the Republic of Venice.
After the downfall of the Roman Empire, Torcello was one of the first lagoon islands to be successively populated by those Veneti who fled the terra firma (mainland) to take shelter from the recurring barbarian invasions. In the 10th century it had a population of at least 10,000 people and was much more powerful than Venice. Thanks to the lagoon's salt marshes, the salines became Torcello's economic backbone and its harbour developed quickly into an important re-export market in the profitable east-west-trade, which was largely controlled by Byzantium during that period. The lagoon around the island of Torcello gradually became a swamp from the 12th century onwards and Torcello's heyday came to an end: Navigation in the laguna morta (dead lagoon) was impossible before long and the growing swamps seriously aggravated the malaria situation, so that the population eventually abandoned the island and left for Murano, Burano or Venice. It now has a population of around 20 people.
The former splendour of Torcello's numerous palazzi, its twelve parishes and its sixteen cloisters has almost disappeared since the Venetians recycled the useful building material. The only remaining medieval buildings form an ensemble of four edifices.
Today's main attraction is the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, founded in 639 and with much 11th and 12th century Byzantine work, including mosaics (e.g. a vivid version of the Last Judgement), surviving. Other attractions include the 11th and 12th century Church of Santa Fosca, which is surrounded by a porticus in form of a Greek cross, and the Museo Provinciale di Torcello housed in two fourteenth century palaces, the Palazzo dell'Archivio and the Palazzo del Consiglio, which was once the seat of the communal government. Another noteworthy sight for tourists is an ancient stone chair, known as Attila's Throne. It has, however, nothing to do with the king of the Huns, but it was most likely the podestà's or the bishop's chair.
Torcello is also home to a Devil's Bridge, known as the Ponte del Diavolo or alternatively the Pontecello del Diavolo (devil's little bridge).
Ernest Hemingway spent some time there in 1948, writing parts of Across the River and Into the Trees.