It was clear from the water-bus stop that something was happening. Half of Venice was on the move, it seemed. Large extended families with giddy children on scooters gently jostled older couples holding hands. Groups of friends chatted happily as others impatiently awaited the arrival of their loved ones. And all were waiting for the number 1 vaporetto to take them down the Grand Canal to the Church of the Madonna della Salute. If ever there was one day when Venetians reclaimed a part of the city for themselves, today was that day. Today was the Festa della Madonna della Salute.
The festival dates back to 1630 when Venice, like many European cities, was under siege from the plague. The disease was in the process of claiming over 80,000 souls within the lagoon and a massive 600,000 throughout the wider Veneto region and people were restless for an end to the outbreak.
The Doge, the city’s president, called for a procession of penitence and prayers to be held for 15 consecutive Saturdays from October 26th 1630 and vowed to dedicate a church to the Madonna if she would release the city from the plague’s vice-like grip. And almost immediately plague deaths started to reduce, until Venice was finally declared plague-free in late 1631.
Venetians took this as a sign of the Virgin Mary’s divine intervention and, although he later succumbed to the plague himself, The Doge was as good as his word commissioning a competition to find the architect to design the new church. Young Baldassare Longhena was finally appointed, creating the baroque Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. He would later go on to complete the colonnaded southern wing, the Procuratie Nuove, of the Piazza San Marco in 1640.
Building work started in 1631 with the drilling of a million wooden piles, or tree trunks, into the soft ground. On top of the wooden platform Longhena constructed an enormous Istrian stone and marble-covered-brick basilica on the thin spit of land between St Mark’s and the Redentore Church. And atop the huge domed Palladian-style church, visible from across the lagoon, Longhena put a statue of the Virgin Mary to guard over the city.
The white, octagonal church quickly became a symbol of Venice and over the centuries, despite its origins in Black Death, inspired legendary artists including as Canaletto, Francesco Gaudi, J. M. W. Turner and John Singer Sargent. Inside, the basilica also houses several works by Tintoretto and Titian, both highly acclaimed Renaissance painters. Many of their paintings can be seen in the Sacristy off one of the side chapels to the left of the main alter. And many of the artworks in and around the church’s circular centre also reference the plague or black death.
Today the basilica, one of the largest in Venice, continues to be the focal point of the city’s celebration of its release from the plague, with prayers and masses held every 21st November since its inauguration.
The Festa della Madonna della Salute actually starts on the 15th November with a mass in St Mark’s Basilica. And on November 21st, Venetians make a short pilgrimage on foot from St Mark’s, across a temporary, floating, votive bridge to the Church of the Madonna della Salute, to light a candle, give thanks and pray to the Virgin Mary for good health.
An estimated 100,000 people come to worship over the week with 5-6000 people in and around the Church at any one time during the day.
If you don’t like crowds this is not the place for you as people patiently shuffle up the steps that rise up from the waterfront to the church’s majestic entrance. But fortunately masses take place every hour throughout the day so that the church can cater for everyone. This is religion on an almost production-line scale.
Worshippers buy candles from market stalls around the church to be lit in the church in thanks to the Madonna. Candles are lit for a few minutes before being extinguished to make way for the candles of other Venetians.
But don’t worry, the half spent candles are not thrown away but used at other masses throughout the year after the festival.
In addition to the quiet, sombre tributes paid to those who lost their lives to the plague, the festa also includes various special foods eaten only during the week of the festival. One of the main customs is to eat a special soup known as Castradina, which is made from cabbage, dried spiced mutton and rosemary.
In addition, the streets behind the church bustle with bright, colourful, market stalls selling candles of various sizes, chestnuts, balloons and all manner of sweets and fried snacks to keep the children amused.
If you’re around the church on the day, also look out for the old rigged boat moored at the end of the Punta della Dogana, where baccalà cicchetti (saltfish pate on bread), ombra wine and castradina are served for all-comers for just €10. The castradina is a tasty mutton stew and melts in your mouth after the saltiness of the baccalà. Perfect comfort food on a cold winter afternoon.
Traditionally the Festa della Madonna della Salute is also a time for Venetian museums and theatres to open their doors to locals for free for the week. The Fenice theatre and Guggenheim museum are often for free for locals so check out the websites for details.
Today the festa is one of the closest to Venetians hearts. It represents the salvation of their city, gratitude for their survival and ushers in winter and Christmas festivities. If you’re in Venice around the festival why not take a stroll over the votive bridge to the Salute to see what a Venetian festival for Venetians looks like and make sure to try a plate of castradina, it really is tasty! And in the meantime, if you have a favourite festival in Italy or your hometown why not leave a comment below and tell me all about it. Let’s hope the Church of the Madonna della Salute continues to protect the health of Venice and her citizens – here’s to the next 384 years of Venice!!
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The Festa della Madonna della Salute runs from the 15th to the 21st November
The day is an unofficial holiday for Venetians who will either take the whole day off or at the very least a few hours to go to light a candle in the Salute.
The inauguration of the votive bridge takes place two days before 21 November on 19 November at 12:30 pm. The bridge stays in place for five days, closing at 6am on 24th November.
Tickets for the castradina, baccalà and wine lunch can be bought onboard the rigged ship, Il Nuovo Trionfo, moored at the tip of the Punta della Dogana. For more information click here
The post Celebrating the Festa della Madonna della Salute, November 21st, Venice first appeared on DreamDiscoverItalia