The Salute festivity in Venice
The most beloved and deeply felt festivity in Venice is for sure the Salute’s. On 21st of November Venetians “reconquer” their own city after the touristic season. It’s a date you cannot miss. It’s not an attraction for tourists as the Redentore’s, also because it takes place in November when the city is often enveloped in the fog, when it’s cold and damp. It may rain, the wind may be freezing, there may be high water. But Venetians don’t get discouraged and go. A real mass pilgrimage.
There are the ones that cross the Grand Canal on the pontoon bridge from Campo Santa Maria del Giglio and reach the calle near the ancient San Gregorio monastery taking you to the Salute. Or the ones that walk across the district of Dorsoduro. The Mass goes on and on for hours so that everyone can join. The church and the calli are packed with people. Stands sell candles of all sizes and weights, at different prices as well as cotton candy, fried pancakes or crunchy nougat.
I love the candles burning in the church. The young kids run from one side of the church to the other to collect the candles from your hands and light them for you. They shine all, the tall ones above the short ones, there are so many. And it’s crowded and noisy. I remember accompanying my tiny 90-year old grandma, who in her blue coat and fur around her neck almost disappeared in the crowd. It felt as if she could be squeezed if I didn’t protect her!
Outside along the Custom’s house on the Grand Canal there used to dock the Il nuovo Trionfo, an old Venetian boat, a trabacolo, which during the Salute festivity became an outdoor kitchen where you could stop by and taste the typical castradina, a traditional soup, very warm, with mutton meat and savoy cabbage. Now this boat is under maintainance and everybody is invited to help!
The festivity reminds us of the last epidemic event in Venice. That’s why the name Salute, which means Health. It was in 1630 when an embassy from Mantua reached the town and the plague spread notwithstanding the isolation on the island of San Clemente.
The sanitary protection system used to work pretty well. Between 1423 and 1468 Venice had started using two islands in the lagoon, Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo, respectively to isolate the sick ones or arrange quarantine. But, it seems that because of a carpenter that was sent to the island to fix the refuge for the sick ambassador from Mantua, the disease struck the city. Tens of thousands of victims, less than in Milan and Lombardy, but still one third of the population. And therefore the vow of the Senate in 1630 to build a temple dedicated to the Virgin of Salute.
The church of Santa Maria della Salute was a very innovative project, without the long nave. Baldassarre Longhena created an octagonal ground plan, sixteen steps to reach the church, six altars. Two bell towers and two domes. A smaller one where the statue of Saint Mark stands and a bigger one, majestic, where the Virgin Mary victoriously stands against the disease, almost as an admiral. The number eight, connected to Mary, rules the construction and the decoration of the whole church. Prosperity, a new beginning, the rebirth. Almost a gigantic baptism fount and a crown for Mary. In the inside, altars featuring the life story of the mother of God, a sacristy with works by Titian and Tintoretto. The main altar by the Flemish artist Juste Le Court with three women: Venice on her knees praying, Mary that listens to the prayer and an old witch, the plague, that gets chased by a little cherub with a burning torch. In the centre, an ancient byzantine icon, the Madonna Mesopanditissa, taken from Crete to Venice in 1670 when the island fell into Ottoman hands. And then the celebrated floor with its five roses at the centre around which you can read “unde origo, inde salus”: where Venice had origin, there originate health and salvation.
However, the most touching words about this church were written by a Serbian poet, Laza Kostić who, at the end of the 19th century, remembered in his verses the death of a young woman he was in love with and the sacrifice of his country for the construction of the church of Santa Maria della Salute. Some talk about one million trees, some, more realistically, talk about 110,700 trees only, that were cut down by Venetians in order to support the weight of this temple in Venice.