Venice – Islands by Any Other Name

Commentaries written after the major migrations of mainland residents into the Venetian Lagoon in the face of Trans-Alpine invaders, and a millenium of later research after an era of “silent witnesses”, contribute high-probability candidate names and locations in the core Venetian Archipelago for Venice’s “original 12 communities”…

And even more mysteries. 

John the Deacon (d.1009) wrote of twelve “island townships” within the entire lagoon, and “many more habitable islands”, in the Cronaca Altinate attributed to him.  Of those, only “Rivalto” (Rialto) is among the twelve “founding” island communities in the central archipelago attributed to the formation of the City of Venice.  This article looks at several attributes of claimed core City communities, not at the “Lagoon Twelve”.

Heaps of Earth

The “first choice” island community locations were Tomba (from the Greek for “heap of earth”, according to Pompeo Mulmenti’s recounting in Venice: its individual growth from the earliest beginnings to the…., Part 1 – The Middle Ages, Volume 1, A.C. McClurg & Co, Chicago, 1906).  Tomba were above the high tide line by a significant margin and were comprised of stable, firm soils – primarily sand and crushed seashells – dry land!  

Coming Soon - Planned Community of Luprio!  (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Coming Soon - Planned Community of Luprio! (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Only nine of this island type seem to be identified in historical records, or ten if Gemine and Gemelle are indeed two islands – “The Twins” – as recorded for some centuries, instead of one as some state.  The records telling of “two islands” seem fairly convincing.  A number of tomba would have been logical sites for “pre-migration” settlements in the Lagoon, focused on fishing and some salt production.

Let’s take a brief look at what the recorded tomba names may mean, where they might be located within Venice, and how they appear to be named today. 

  • Rialto: Originally Riva Alto or “High Bank”, a “Major Island” in early records, Miozzi has it stretching northwest to San Cassiano (726), but records for Luprio also claim that area.  Its earliest known church is San Giacomo de Rialto, (421AD).
  • Scopolo: A “Major Island”.  Old records call it the most eminent island except for Rialto, but where?  West of San Marco?  Central San Polo?  Who knows?
  • Dorsoduro: A “Major Island”, d’Orso Duro is literally “The Hard Back” with its dry sand and shell firmament.  Its earliest church may be San Gregorio (806?).  Miozzi thought it stretched from there to around San Vio.
  • Spinalunga: “Long thorn”, or  “long spine”, may have been the first occupied island within the group now collectively called Isola Giudecca (a collection of at least eight islands).  Sant’Eufemia (…Dorotea, Tecla e Erasma – 864?) is its earliest known church.  
  • Luprio: Also referred to as LupaoLaprio, Orio, Lupi and other permutations.  A “Major Island” in early records, in the area now occupied by Piazzale Roma and the demolished Chiesa Santa Croce (Giardini Papadopoli, across the 1930’s Rio Novo from the Piazzale).  Later expansion added areas around San Ermagora e Fortunato, San Giovanni Evangelista, Ss. Cassiano, S. Giacomo, S. Chiara (always a separate small island on maps), and S. Giovanni Decollato.  However, Orio is also sometimes applied to the location of Ss. Apostoli in Cannaregio!  A mystery!
  • Mendigole: Also recorded as Mendigola, its area includes San Nicolo di Mendicante in western Dorsoduro, Miozzi’s concept extended it to the area of the Carmini.
  • Gemine e Gemelle:  A name meaning The Twins, Gemini was recorded as two islands, adjacent and very similar.  Perhaps joined at low tide, their area included Chiesa San Martino (600-620), San Antonin (610) and the monastery San Giovanni in Bragora (640), although at some point those were on three islands.
  • Ombriola: Recorded as the island where San Zaccharia was founded (640?), and an ancient San Giovanni Batista.  The name origin, as for most tomba, is unknown.  Miozzi thought that it extended to San Giuliano (San Zulian – 829?) and San Geminianus e Menna (552?), with the later Basilica di San Marco and now-demolished Ss. Filippo e Giacomo between, along with several ria!  Others note an island named Morso under San Marco, whether a tomba or form less firm is not noted.
  • Olivolo: The name may refer to olive wood or trees.  The island is first the source of the term Castello, an ancient castle protecting the east end of the archipelago.  Now named Isola San Pietro(See Campo San Pietro at ), another source traces the name from “Castrum Olivoli“, Latin castrum into Italian castello.  Legend gives castle founding honors to Antenor, leader of “the Eneti from Troy”.  The  tombe community’s earliest recorded church was Ss. Sergius e Bacchus, founded in around 650.
  •  Ten tomba, with Gemine and Gemelle included as two distinct islands.

Hypothetical Islands and Real Churches

Some of the nineteen or more “proto-islands” proposed in 20th-Century studies were given conceptual shapes and sizes that do not include a pre-800 church.  Historical commentaries strongly posit that a church is the first community structure that would have been erected in a place, and at a very early date in the life of the community.   Other conceptualized islands hold two or more pre-800 churches.  Yes, several mainland groups may have shared a single island but retained parish identity as in their city of origin.   

What of the remaining “original 12” communities when only ten tomba “sure things” are named?  Different approaches help to stir the pot, and two can be considered in that 20th-Century “proto-island” work of Eugenio Miozzi and Paolo Maretto.  The approaches are contrasted in Venezia nei secoli: la citta (Casa Editrice “Libeccio”, Venice, 1957, Volume 1, pages 115-183), versus Maretto alone in La casa veneziana nella storia della citte: dalle origini all’Ottacento (Marsilio Editore, Venice, 1986, pp. 54-67).  Maps created by both men and by later students of their work attempt validation and progress toward solving the “founding islands” puzzle.  Many issues are unresolved, including accountability for dates of initial occupation, actual island and rii locations, and name assignments. 

Isola San Giorgio, site San Giorgio Maggiore, lies across the Bacino from San Marco. Never hypothetical, this island may have been an unreferenced tomba, and was tagged a “proto-island” although no pre-monastery historic community was identified in studies.  Commentaries written prior to the 790 monastery founding call the island Il Cipressi, referencing a copse of cypress trees that required firm soil and long duration, like a tomba.  The list of “sure thing” tomba communities excludes Il Cipressi, but records of significant families living there prior to monastery founding warrants additional study.

Floating Churches?

Sometimes, the founding age given for a church, even without extrapolating from an assumption that a wooden church preceded the earliest known wood or brick structure, raises questions about hypothesized ancient island perimeter locations, since churches were not built in the water!   Some examples of “early” churches not located within diagrammatic “proto-island” perimeters are presented for your consideration:

  • San Pantalon (San Pantaleon e Giuliana, 444?) in the current Siestre Dorsoduro.  
  • San Lorenzo (590-610?) in Castello.
  • San Marcuola (Ss. Ermagora e Fortunato, 569?) on the Grand Canal in Cannaregio.
  • San Marzial (San Marcilian, 600-650?), in mid-Cannaregio.

As mentioned earlier, other proposed “proto-islands” contain no churches, monasteries or monache recorded as founded prior to 900AD.  That assessment does not include monasteries or monache on islands other than il Cipressi where the researchers found no record of a non-religious order “community”.  Between churches with no island and islands with no church, perhaps continued appraisal of the past studies is warranted. 

Advancing to consideration of the 9th Century, at least eleven additional churches plus a number of new monasteries and monache are recorded that are not located within the perimeters of the hypothesized proto-islands.  Since the most prolific “proto-island” count is 19 (Miozzi), perhaps these other establishments were constructed on later islands reclaimed from marshier or lower-lying, infill sand islands between or adjacent to the older ones.  Simply drawing the circles bigger does not solve the problem.

The nebbio of historical treatises and fires may obscure inclusion of a few tomba lying outside the City core, perhaps San Cristofo, San Michele, more distant Murano and Torcello, vanished Ammiano or Constanziaco, or a slice of lidi, but then we are back into “Lagoon Communities”.  A few “not quite as high and dry” islands may have been sites for the next generation of communities, built up from the velma and the barrene.

Historical Mud Wrestling

The next set of possibilities for “original” and “next generation” settlement, a distinction that might be demonstrated by correlation to serial mainland invasions, may have been the first “reclaimed” mudbanks, the “next best thing” after the tomba were claimed.  Mainland settlers from riverine and estuarian lands on terra firma may have found such soils very familiar and readily adaptable to development using their old technologies. 

Checklist: Tomba - ?; Village - ?; Monastery - Y   (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Checklist: Tomba - ?; Village - ?; Monastery - Y (c)2011 Randy D. Bosch

Those lands are variously referred to as the Velma and the Barene.  In his history, Mulmenti identified eight of this type, but also wrote that “others” had stated that between 60 and 70 of them went into the make up of Venice. 

Many historians have wrestled with the designations and with attempts to locate them. 

Mulmenti only located one of them!

  • Iria:  Also recorded as d’Ario or D’Adrio, perhaps including a Chiesa ai Candiani e Ariani and the St. Magno founded San Raffaele (640?).
  • Ceo:  Contiguous with the church and Convent of San Andrea (1329?), but not a “community”.
  • Biria:  Also recorded as Biri and Beira, but the location is hard to pin down.
  • Plombiola:  (or Piombola) Near Olivolo, in the area of San Antonio Abbate (1334).
  • Cannaregio:  Perhaps a “place of reeds” marshy area now part of western Cannaregio, but others state that the “reeds” were construction material passing through a trans-shipment point for later use in construction throughout Venice. 
  • Teran: Around San Giovanni “Laterano” (San Zuanne di Teran – 1491?), and said in old records to be an ancient tomba!
  • Adrio:  Also recorded as Ladrio or L’Adrio, between Olivolo and Gemene.  Perhaps the area of San Biagio (1052).
  • Bancaria: Recorded as within the parish of Santa Maria Formosa (640).

Added possibilities for velme and barene from other sources include:

  • Canaleclo:  Perhaps in the eastern area of historic Cannaregio. 
  • Vigano: Possibly near San Giorgio in Giudecca, near its long-departed lake.
  • Lemio: Or Lemeneo, the area of Ss. Ermagora e Fortunato (San Marcuola – 569?).
  • Turrito: At the “confluence of Grand Vigano & Rivalto built in 810″.
  • Dogencastel: The closest approximation that I have found is to “Doge’s Castel”, the small island on which the first Doge’s Palace was constructed prior to joining it with the island on which San Marco now stands.
  • Valverde: Named because of the trees and grass there, and an early convent site, but not a “community” (Santa Maria di Valverde, 936) in Sestiere Cannaregio.  Trees and grass bring to mind a more solid island (tomba?) than a mudbank!
  • San Salvador: An earlier name would be helpful for this area in Sestiere San Marco, south of the Rialto bridge, and possibly a sand bank island (but not shown as a tomba) with a chapel founded as early as 638.
  • Certosa: One of the many uses of this place name, applied out in the Lagoon, but it also appears on a single barene list for the City itself.

All of this was eventually sorted out and many original names were assigned to oblivion prior to 1171 as they were superseded by parish community names, and when Doge Vitale Michiel oversaw the boundary setting for and naming of Sestiere.  That task had also been credited to Agnello Partecipazio (811-827), but that has now been assigned to the dustbin of unprovable legends by more contemporary historians, some of whose work has also been assigned to the dustbin of unverifiable history for similar reasons…

Along with the archives.


(This article is part of the series “Venice – The Intentional City” on RenaissanceRules.  The series Introduction is at .  Please stop in again to read previous articles and future segments. Enjoy the journey! Buon Viaggio!)

About randysrules

From a professional background in architecture, community and regional planning, urban design, leadership, and fine arts, this blog provides insights on ethics, leadership, architecture/planning/urban design, Venice, and whatever intrigues me at the time. Enjoy!
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