02 August, 2006

69. Santa Maria della Salute: Part 1

One of the most recognizable silhouettes on the Venetian skyline, the church of Santa Maria della Salute dominates the lower reaches of the Grand Canal.

'Salute' means 'health', but it also means 'salvation', and the church acquired its name because it was commissioned at the beginning of an outbreak of the plague in 1630, as a prayer for salvation. The Redentore, on Giudecca, (see the post here on June 2) was built as an act of thanksgiving after the city's final deliverance from the previous plague attack in 1575, but this even grander edifice was started in the hope that the Holy Mother might be persuaded to intervene while the plague was still happening and protect the city from the worst of the current outbreak.

Arguably, the plan worked. This time, fewer people died, only 46,490 citizens perished compared to some 51,000 in the first epidemic, which in one sense was an improvement.

Equally arguably, the holy bribe failed. As the city's numbers had not yet recovered to their former levels, the dead this time represented an even higher proportion of the total populace than before, pushing the number of survivors left in 1633 down to only 102,000, the lowest city headcount for more than 200 years.

The project even started badly. The foundation stone was to be laid by Doge Nicolo Contarini on Ascension Day 1631, but he was bedridden on that day, and the laying was postponed for a week. On April 1, the Duke hauled himself from his sickbed and performed the ceremony, then died at 7am the following morning. That should have been a sign that Mary wasn't in much of a compassionately intervening mood, but the church construction went ahead anyway.

Each year on November 21, the city celebrates the Festa della Madonna della Salute, and a procession of worshippers approaches the church from San Marco across the Grand Canal on a pontoon made of boats, to then give thanks for salvation from the plague in the great octagonal church.

I suppose an optimist would say that although a third of the city died, two-thirds of it didn't, but that seems to me to be a flimsy and macabre cause for celebration.


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