“The light here is in fact a mighty magician” wrote Henry James of the Lagoon, “and is, with all respect to Titian, Veronese and Tintoret, the greatest artist of them all”. It was the quality of the light and the romantic isolation of some of the islands which was to attract visitors from the late eighteenth century onwards, but prior to then, the islands were little visited. The great exception was Murano, which attracted visitors from as early as the sixteenth century because of the international reputation of its glass factory. In 1608, for example, the travel writer Thomas Coryate took a gondola to visit “pleasant Murano where they make their Venice glasses, so famous all over Christendom for the incomparable fineness thereof” and the glass factory was to remain a popular tourist destination, Effie Ruskin, for example, recording that she had “bought some extremely beautiful glass of different colours and size and hope to make necklace with them for my sisters”. Neighbouring Burano was also popular because of its lace-making.
It was the Romantics who discovered the remoter islands of the lagoon. Byron took lessons in Armenian from the monks of San Lazzaro and it was there, so he confided in a letter to his half sister Augusta Leigh, that he fell in love with “a very pretty Venetian of two and twenty, with great black eyes”. William Beckford was one of the earliest writers to enthuse over the wilder beauties of Torcello in 1780, delighting in the primitive qualities of the basilica and excitingly pagan-looking font: “the figures of the nymphs cling around the sides, more devilish and more Egyptian than any I ever beheld. The dragons of China are not more whimsical”. But it was Ruskin who has left us with the most poetical description of the “waste of wild-sea moor”. Despite the building of a hotel on the island by Cipriani, the Torcello remains remarkably unspoilt.
Byron describes his excursions to the island and monastery of San Lazzaro: