It was from Byzantium that the taste for refinement and sensuous luxury came to Venice. "Artificiosa voluptate se mulcebat," a chronicler wrote of the Greek wife of an early doge. Her scents and perfumes, her baths of dew, her sweet-smelling gloves and dresses, the fork she used at table scandalized her subjects, plain Italian pioneer folk. The husband of this effeminate woman had Greek tastes also. He began, says the chronicler, "to work in mosaic," importing mosaic workers -- and marbles and precious stones -- to adorn his private chapel, St. Mark's, in the Eastern style that soon became second nature to the Venetians.
The Byzantine mode, in Venice, lost something of its theological awesomeness. The stern, solemn figure of the Pantocrator who dominates the Greek churches with his frowning brows and upraised hand does not appear in St. Mark's in His arresting majesty. In a Greek church, you feel that the Eye of God is on you from the moment you step in the door; you are utterly encompassed by this all-embracing gaze, which in peasant chapels is often represented by an eye over the door. The fixity of this divine gaze is not punitive; it merely calls you to attention and reminds you of the eternal, the Law of the universe arching over time and circumstance. The Pantocrator of the Greeks has traits of the old Nemesis, sweetened and purified by the Redemption. He is also a Platonic idea, the End of the chain of speculation.
The Venetians were not speculators or philosophers, and the theological assertion is absent from St. Mark's mosaics, which seek rather to tell a Biblical story than to convey an abstraction. The clothing of the story assumes, in Venice, an adventitious interest, as in the fluffy furs worn by Salome in the Baptistery mosaic. The best Venetian mosaics are not in St. Mark's, the doges' showcase, but in Torcello, which was an episcopal see in its own right and owed political allegiance to the Greek exarchate of Ravenna.
Torcello is supposed to have been founded by a direct order from God to the Bishop of Altinum. This is a legend one can believe. Unlike Venice, which was the product of necessity and invention, Torcello does indeed appear to be the result of a divine imperative. Only God, you feel, would have commanded a city to be set here on this flat, mournful prairie, barely afloat in the marshy lagoons -- an island that was abandoned in the more rational eighteenth century because of the noisome malarious vapors that had reduced the population, once numbering 20,000, to a skeleton crew.
Torcello is healthy enough now and a favorite rendezvous with tourists. A private motorboat runs twice a day in season from Harry's Bar in urbe to Harry's Bar in Torcello, a pleasant rustic tavern set in a ragged garden, surrounded by festoons of grapevines. You have an hour and a half to lunch or dine on Harry's specialties (lobster and scampi and fish soup and lasagne) and half an hour to inspect the two churches, buy souvenirs and postcards and Burano lace doilies, before being sped back to Venice. There is a boy in the Cathedral who explains the mosaics.
If I sigh over this, it is because I have read the accounts of earlier tourists, who used to cross from Burano by gondola and walk alone on the pestilential island, musing on the fate of civilizations in the mood of Shelley's "Ozymandias." That is how Torcello should be seen. But now to the melancholy of its widowed Cathedral and orphaned daughter-church, Santa Fosca, a new, modern element has been added -- the melancholy of desecration and of the tomb's solitude invaded. All sacred spots today possess this freshened sadness. A double "Never more" echoes over the tomb of Theodoric at Ravenna, the temple at Sunium, where Byron carved his name. Not being sacred, Venice is happily free from these gloomy reverberations. But once you embark on the lagoons, it is another matter; the voices of guides and of other touristic parties become suddenly insupportable.
It is still possible, however, to go the old way to Torcello, taking the Murano-Burano vaporetto from the Fondamenta Nuova, lunching at Burano, and continuing by gondola to the sluggish canals and reedy landing-place of Torcello. If you dally in Burano long enough, you will miss the Harry's Bar parties, who will be on their way back to Venice, and there will only be the souvenir-vendors and the postcard people and the lace-women and the custodians, lined up to speak to you in a babel of tongues.