The Story of Ombriola, the Garden Island in the Lagoon
Mapping Venice in the 5th century AD, and the forgotten story of its first orchard, which was a monastery garden.
Ombriola is the forgotten name of an island in the Lagoon … Imagine having an island all to yourself, rather large, solid unlike the wetlands and marshes, which are so difficult to build on because always swampy. No, this island, the largest of an archipelago, is just perfect: No need to extend space and build a platform of bricks resting on wooden poles.
Ombriola still exists, just its name has changed1. This island is located in the geographical center of the Lagoon. In the 5th century, its soil was overgrown with erbe alofile - herbs loving the salty environment, like rosemary, nettles, wild hops and bruscandoli.
Ombriola is located in the midst of an archipelago looking south-east, towards a mighty sand barrier2 partly overgrown overgrown with pines, shields the Lagoon from the open sea.
To prepare the soil for orchards and vegetable gardens, the nuns needed to clean nettles and reeds but left the plants on the edges of the island as “natural fortification”, that is to prevent the soil from crumbling and shifting.
Around their little wooden church, built in the 6th century, there’s plenty of space to grow vineyards, while the northern shore of the island is overgrown with osmarin (rosemary), which the nuns use to make ointments and flavor fish soup. And soon, apple, pear and cherry trees were planted alongside vines which the inhabitants of the islands had learned to grow from the Romans:
Ombriola’s inhabitants had originally come from Altino3, a Roman city overlooking the port facilities of the Lagoon, trying to find permanent safety.
First, they moved to the Torcello archipelago (northern Lagoon), but soon, some moved to the group of 118 natural islands in the center of the Lagoon, because those were less exposed to the tides and almost free from swamps and wetlands. Here in the midst of this 550 km²-sized Lagoon, they felt safer from the enemies who had overthrown the Roman Empire in the year 476 AD.
Ombriola was one of the first islands to be settled of the Rivus altus archipelago: These new inhabitants had come to stay, drawn by the fertile soil and mild climate of the Lagoon.
The former inhabitants of the Roman city Altino were not alone on Ombriola, their trading partners (and perhaps ancestors ??) also settled there. These were merchants and officials from Byzantium, deeply preoccupied because of the wars in Europe and the fall of the Roman Empire (476 AD).
At that time, those Byzantine - Greek merchants and their families were looking for a safe place and trading post on the northern Adriatic shores, from where they could monitor events during these unstable times.
This is how Ombriola became the ancient heart and soul of Venice. From here towards Rialto, a chain of islands and canals would lead the way to the market, and boats and rafts packed with fruit and vegetables would slide along the winding canals every morning.
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