Every 21 November, Venice celebrates the Feast of Our Lady of Health. Among the Venetian annual events, you should not exclude this Venetian event that makes us relive the sufferings suffered and the tenacity of the Venetian people. So, if you're planning to visit Venice in November, the Festa della Madonna della Salute should definitely be on your list of things to do in Venice.
Like the Festa del Redentore, held in the summer and commemorating the end of terrible ancient plagues, the Festa della Madonna della Salute does the same, but takes place during the winter. The Festa della Salute commemorates the bubonic plague that struck Venice between about 1630 and 1631.
This particular plague, with which the festival is associated, originated in northern Italy, in Mantua to be precise. At that time Venice and Mantua were political adversaries, but they were united by art and waterways. Today Mantua is a small town in Lombardy, but during the 17th century it was a large economic centre with many inhabitants. It was therefore necessary to demolish Mantua to stem the advance of the virus. In fact, the city of Mantua declined in population very rapidly, soon leading to famine.
In an act of desperation, Mantua's ambassadors were sent to Venice but were isolated on the uninhabited island of San Servolo. Despite these careful measures, the plague managed to enter Venice.
It spread rapidly infecting and killing 100,000 Venetians. The Doge and part of his family died, as the disease did not distinguish aristocrats from commoners, nor monks from priests. Medicine and other cures proved useless at the time, so the Venetians turned to religion. A procession was organised in which 10,000 survivors took part. They walked incessantly through St Mark's Square for three days and nights, with torches and votive statues. In the end it was decreed that if the city survived the plague, a church of unparalleled size and beauty would be built.
During the following week the course of the epidemic slowed down and within two weeks it had subsided completely. The Venetian authorities then decided to fulfil their vow to build the church. The church was to be built at the customs port, where some buildings had just been demolished. (The demolition of wooden houses and the dispersal of crowded communities such as monasteries and seminaries were emergency measures often carried out during times of plague).
The building was completed in about twenty years and became an exemplary model of Baroque architecture that was imitated throughout Europe. The church was consecrated on 21 November 1687. It paid homage to the Republic and the Virgin Mary and was called the Santa Maria della Salute or simply, Salute Church.
Even today many Venetians take the opportunity to participate in the Festa della Salute, which is marked by a procession. On 21 November a bridge of boats is connected across the Grand Canal from Campo Santa Maria del Giglio to the Salute Church. The long procession starts from St Mark's and arrives at the Salute Church and is led by the Archbishop of Venice. Along the procession route, street vendors sell sweets and candy floss, along with candles that will be lit inside the church. This is followed by the customary Venetian dish of the Madonna della Salute known as castradina, a cabbage and mutton stew, a Venetian delicacy.
The Festa della Salute is also popular with children for the toys and sweets on sale. Perhaps the popularity of the Festa Madonna della Salute is due to the attachment Venetians have to it since childhood, or perhaps because health is never taken for granted. If your trip is in November, you can join the procession and relive the ancient ritual, or you can simply watch the Venetians.