“The Salute”, a yet living rite

A view by Michele Marieschi takes us back around 300 years.

We are in the first half of the Eighteenth century and almost nothing has changed. The big basilica decorated with friezes and statues, the buildings on its sides with their typical chimneys. The gondolas furnished with the typical felze, as it was used then, a symbol of that rakish, mysterious Venice.

But why this picture, above all, why in November. There are no doubts for Venetians, but also for who knows Venice a bit. This is the reason, this unmistakable church in white Istrian stone dominating the mouth of the Grand Canal towards the basin of Saint Mark, together with the Dogana customs point: the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute.

A big, impressive church which recalls the sail of a ship with its huge dome, but above all a great history, made of people and suffering, of fervour and faith.

It is the tale of the Madonna of Health for all Venetians, but also for the many foreigners who love this city.

Let us go back again in time, almost a century away from the disenchanted image offered by Marieschi. It was 1630, one of the most dramatic moments in Venetian history. A frightful plague epidemic swept away at least half the population in the city in a few months.

Helpless before such an immense tragedy, Doge Nicolò Contarini decided to build a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, by an edict of the Senate and with the support of a popular vote, to ask for her intercession in ending the pestilence, which ceased almost miraculously the following year.

The task was assigned to a very young architect, then thirty-two year old Baldassarre Longhena, who conceived a grandiose building, the one we still see today. The interior, on an octagonal plan, had to display a group of statues on the altar, in addition to the Madonna, including one representing an old woman with raised arms, embodying the fleeing plague. The enormous, daring work he planned was definitively consecrated on 21 November 1687, without its great architect being able to contemplate it, as he had died five years earlier.

Here therefore is the reason for our tribute, and for the one which all citizens still dedicate nowadays to this Madonna, with a pilgrimage on that day. 

The symbols of this fête, in which you can still perceive that ancient spirit, will be a floating bridge on boats to make access easier from the Saint Mark district; a solemn Mass celebrated by the Patriarch of Venice and, of course, the ritual lighting of the votive candle.

It will thus be possible to visit the basilica to admire the famous “Black Madonna”, which has been located on the main altar since 1669, and the extraordinary artworks preserved here, to take a walk around the crowded stalls nearby, or a promenade in the neighbourhood towards the picturesque Punta della Dogana or the Zattere quay-front, perhaps searching for the speciality of this period, the castradina mutton dish, in some tavern. 

For those who will not have this opportunity, the month of November also features an extraordinary programme of events. It will be sufficient to browse through the following pages to discover the new “season” featuring opera and symphony music at La Fenice Theatre, the Goldoni Theatre season featuring prose, and the spectacular exhibitions panorama headed by the maxi-Architecture Biennale, by the celebration showcases for Jacopo Tintoretto and others offered by great institutions like the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and the Giorgio Cini, Querini, Pinault and Prada Foundations. D.R.