The silhouette of Santa Maria della Salute, one of Venice’s landmark buildings, dominates the mouth of the Grand Canal. It’s a superb example of Venetian baroque architecture.
During the first half of the 17th century, a terrible plague broke out in Northern Italy. The Doge of Venice took preventive measures to stop infection in Venice. But all the efforts were in vain and the disease spread throughout the city. In a very short time, in spite of the restrictions set by the authorities, the population was decimated. The Doge and most of his family perished.
With no medical remedy the people prayed for deliverance. A procession was organized in which almost all 10,000 survivors participated. They walked incessantly around the Piazza San Marco for three days and nights, with torches and votive statues. Finally, a declaration was made that, if the city escaped total devastation, they would build a church of a size and beauty never seen before.
The Republic’s prayers were answered. In the following week, the progress of the epidemic slowed, and within two weeks, it diminished altogether. Honouring the declaration, the location church, was quickly decided upon.
Baldassare Longhena, a 26 year old architect, whose style was known as the new Baroque (Venice has always been conservative), was chosen, by competition, to head the project. He started building the church in October 1630 and worked on it for the rest of his life. It was completed in 1687, some five years after his death. The foundation needed to be reinforced with more than 300,000 posts in order to support the weight of the enormous marble structure. The edifice became an exemplary model of Baroque, studied and imitated all over Europe. The church was consecrated in 21st of November 1687.
It is constructed of Istrian stone and marmorino or brick covered with marble dust. While its external decoration and location hold the eye, the internal design is also remarkable. The octagonal church, ringed by classical vocabulary, hearkens back to Byzantine designs such as the Basilica of San Vitale.
The interior has its architectural elements demarcated by the coloration of the material, and the central nave with its ring of saints atop a balustrade is a novel design. It is full of Marian symbolism. The great dome represents her crown, the cavernous interior her womb, the eight sides and the eight points recallher symbolic star.
The interior is comparatively sober. The large domed chancel and grandiose high altar dominate the view from the main door. The altarpiece of the Baroque high altar, designed by Longhena himself, is a Byzantine Madonna and Child of the 12th or 13th century. Tintoretto contributed Marriage at Cana in the great sacristy, which includes a self-portrait. The most represented artist is Titian, who painted St Mark enthroned with SS Cosmas, Damian, Sebastian and Roch, the altarpiece of the great sacristy, as well as ceiling paintings of David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac, Cain and Abel, eight tondi of the Doctors of the Church, and the Evangelists, all in the great sacristy, and Pentecost in the nave.
Santa Maria della Salute is the city’s most important 17th century church. Its gleaming white mass looms over the San Marco entrance to the Grand Canal. Approach it through the maze-like streets of Dorsoduro, or catch the No 1 vaporetto to Salute.
Unfortunately, some of the best works, such as Titian’s ceiling paintings of Cain and Abel, The Sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac and David and Goliath are beyond the altar, where visitors are not allowed.
Every year, on 21st of November, the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, almost all of Venice visits the Church of the Salute for a service of thanksgiving for deliverance from the plague. This involves crossing the Grand Canal on a specially constructed pontoon bridge. The Festa della Madonna della Salute is still a major event in Venice.
On the day of the festival, the Sacristy is opened, where a small but very fine collection of paintings from the best masters in Venetian and Italian painting are housed.
Read the story of the Church with pictures of the Festival held each 21st of November here