Celebrating the Festa della Madonna della Salute, November 21st, Venice

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 majestic Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Dorsoduro, Venice

The majestic Church of Santa Maria della Salute, Dorsoduro, Venice

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 plague doctor fumigates patients with the smoke from burning herbs

The plague doctor fumigates patients with the smoke from burning herbs

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.

The high altar of the church of the Madonna della Salute with the golden icon of the Madonna at its centre

The high altar of the church of the Madonna della Salute with the golden icon of the Madonna at its centre

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.

Detail of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute

Detail of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute

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.

Detail of one of the side alters at the Church of the Madonna della Salute

Detail of one of the side alters at the Church of the Madonna della Salute

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.

The Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto

The Marriage at Cana by Tintoretto

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 votive bridge crosses the Grand Canal between the San Marco district, near the Hotel Gritti Palace, and Dorsoduro

The votive bridge crosses the Grand Canal between the San Marco district, near the Hotel Gritti Palace, and Dorsoduro

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.

The faithful make the short pilgrimage to the Church of the Madonna della Salute on foot

The faithful make the short pilgrimage to the Church of the Madonna della Salute on foot

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.

Worshippers gather on the Salute's waterfront before entering the church

Worshippers gather on the Salute’s waterfront before entering the church

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.

Candles are on sale from stalls around the Salute

Long white candles, or ceri, are on sale from stalls around the Salute

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.

Candles are lit to give thanks to the Madonna

Candles are lit to give thanks to the Madonna

But don’t worry, the half spent candles are not thrown away but used at other masses throughout the year after the festival.

Candied fruit and other treats are on sale around the church for the Festa della Madonna della Salute in Venice

Candied fruit and other treats are on sale around the church for the Festa della Madonna della Salute in Venice

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.

Castradina mutton on sale in the butchers in Venice

Castradina mutton on sale in the butchers in Venice

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.

Up up and away - balloons of all shapes and sizes are on sale for the Festa della Madonna della Salute!

Up up and away – balloons of all shapes and sizes are on sale for the Festa della Madonna della Salute!

Pastries for the sweet toothed at the Festa della Madonna della Salute!

Pastries for the sweet toothed at the Festa della Madonna della Salute!

Fried pastries - mmm - at the Festa della Madonna della Salute!!

Fried pastries – mmm – at the Festa della Madonna della Salute!!

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.

Baccalà, castradina and beans for lunch at the Festa della Madonna della Salute

Baccalà, castradina and beans for lunch at the Festa della Madonna della Salute

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.

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is free for Venetians during the Festa della Salute

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum is free for Venetians during the Festa della Salute

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!!

One last thing – if you have enjoyed this or any other posts over the last few months, please nominate DreamDiscoverItalia for the Italy Magazine Blogger Awards HERE! Nominations are open until 30th November 2015 so there is no time to waste! Oh, and feel free to spread the word! Much appreciated! Grazie mille!! :o)

Boats on the Grand Canal navigate under the low votive bridge carrying pilgrims to the church for the Festa della Madonna della Salute

Boats on the Grand Canal navigate under the low votive bridge carrying pilgrims to the church for the Festa della Madonna della Salute

Useful information

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

Detail on lamp in the church

Detail on lamp in the church

The votive bridge stays open 5 days

The votive bridge stays open 5 days

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6 Responses to Celebrating the Festa della Madonna della Salute, November 21st, Venice

  1. Thanks yet again for a great description of this particular event……wish I could be there…..the food sounds amazing!!!! Did you try it?

    • lizbert1 says:

      Thanks Cecelia and yes, I think you would have enjoyed this one as it was very venetian – the church was full of locals and their families. And of course I tried the food! I had castradina on the rigged ship moored at Punta della Dogana which was just what we needed on a cold, fresh day! Plus the arancini and creme pastries from the market stalls were fabulous!! Mmmm!!!

  2. Sandi says:

    Fascinating to read about this festival (although I am not a fan of crowds, so maybe it was better for me to read about it; I still remember getting on an insanely overloaded vaporetto at “rush hour” ). I remember going into Santa Maria della Salute to see the Titians and Tintorettos; a man in the Sacristy was so excited to see my children there. Memories are precious, aren’t they?

    • lizbert1 says:

      The vaporetti were overcrowded all morning and a lot of the afternoon as thousands of Venetians were on the move yesterday. It was so lovely to see lots of the older residents dressed in their sunday best too – Venetian ladies of a certain age have lots of style!! And the sacristy seemed to be free too – nobody was manning the ticket office – so I got to spend a good half hour gazing at the Titians and Tintorettos – its always lovely to see children being introduced to art too – keep up the great work!!

  3. This post and all your posts bring me directly into the action in Venezia!!! I feel as if I’m really there, thanks to your gorgeous photos and descriptions of the events going on!

  4. I love any kind of procession in Italy when people walk behind the saint statue…. It shows such devotion and tradition!!

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