Guide to the Easter Traditions of Venice

Easter and the Easter week in Venice usher in the real, lush, beautiful spring in the Lagoon: People love eating breakfast outside, and it’s pleasantly warm by 9 am. The city is filled with blossoms, and we all forward to traditional and new!! Easter breads and treats. And we do look forward to Pasquetta, Easter Monday, which means spending a day outside, in the midst of all this green, savoring the refreshing and clear air of the Lagoon. And it’s wisteria time above all, so the city is literally covered with fragrant grappoli di glicine (lush blossoms). Which is why you get to see them in this post.

In today’s weekend guide to Venice, you can find the Easter traditions of our city, and impressions from an evening walk in the Easter week taking you to a pastry shop showing off a special, favorite Venetian Easter cake. But first, let’s start by telling you more about Venetian Easter celebrations.

Venice and the tradition of Easter processions

Italy like Spain, is famous for organizing religious processions in the Easter Week: Sorrento and a number of towns on the Amalfi coast are well-known for their processions on Good Friday, and so are many towns of Sicily. And the Venice of the past created her own processions:

Easter was the major Catholic feast celebrated in Venice. The Venetian church has her roots in the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empire, which is why to this day, the Church in Venice is represented by a Patriarch. Perhaps to keep a balance between Europe, and her Byzantine roots, the Government of the Venetian Republic created a calendar of festivities of their own. In a nutshell, there were both an increasing number of national (Venetian) feasts, and four Catholic feasts celebrated in Venice until 1797, Christmas, Easter, Assumption of Jesus Christ, Assumption of Virgin Mary.

Easter celebrations in Venice included a number of processions, not only in the Piazza but in front of many parish churches. The Easter week started with the Doge attending a mass service celebrated by the Patriarch on Palm Sunday in the church Santa Maria Formosa, followed by a solemn procession back to the Basilica. On Good Friday, a festive procession took place in the early morning in the Piazza, and another in the evening, al chiaro della luna – under the moonlight.

Contrary to the common belief that the Doge wasn’t allowed to leave his Palace more often than once or twice a year, he actually presided over many festivities and celebrations, public and private, during the year. And he also left Venice when necessary, like Doge Enrico Dandolo did in 1304, traveling all the way to Byzantium.

Below you can see two images of processions, which took place in other times but which Venetians recall to this day. The first procession is the moonlight procession undertaken in the evening of Good Friday. Look how festive and organized it was.

The other image shows the Easter Monday procession, when the Doge visited the abbess of the monastery of San Zaccaria church on Easter Monday. The Venetian patriarch celebrated the mass service, and the Doge afterwards was invited to lunch in the monastery, where the abbess presented him with a corno ducale.

Good Friday Procession, Piazza San Marco
Under the moonlight: Procession in Piazza San Marco in the evening of Good Friday. Painting by Gabriel Bella (1730-99) Image source: Wikipedia
Procession on Easter Monday – Monastery San Zaccaria (Francesco Guardi, 1712-93) Image source: Wikipedia

Wrapped in wisteria!

Besides processions adorned with palm and olive leaves, in the campagna veneta, the Estuary and the Lagoon, the Easter week represents the official start of the garden year! The season is now in full swing and a visit to a garden center, like Serra dei Giardini, is a must for me. Visiting La Serra involves a long, leisurely walk along the green hedges following Riva dei Sette Martiri, alongide the fresh green leaves of evergreen plants, wild cherry trees, and white, lavender-colored and purple wisteria blossoms, embellishing the Biennale gardens with pastel colors. If you want to savor spring in Venice, I recommend that you go for this long and refreshing walk. You can follow me along in this post, in which I describe my favorite mornig walk around my neighborhood.

When the daytrippers have left, the evenings during La Settimana Santa (Holy Week) in Venice are actually very quiet. Just before dark, it may well happen that you are the only person walking along Salizzada dei Greci, a shopping and gourmet food district you reach after crossing Ponte dei Greci next to the Greek monastery and church. The only lights you can see now are inside, in the restaurants and illuminating the windows of one of the finest pastry stores in town, Pasticceria Chiusso.

Pierino’s Easter Cake

Above you can see Pierino’s Easter cake. Like our grandparents, he grew up in the northern Lagoon and has been a family friend since he and his family moved to Venice in the 1960s. He specializes in recreating cakes that look and taste decidely like those you can find in historical recipes books. By historical I mean books of the 12th century, so what he offers is a gourmet trip back in time.

Each and every bakery and pastry store in Venice have special recipes for Easter cakes, but you need to ask and take a close look at their vetrina. Pierino Chiusso’s answer will be “all sorts of almond cake”. But then it’s so much more than just an almond cake. It comes in several sizes and consists of almond and pistachio flour, covered with a layer of crema pasticcera (flavored with almond liquor!) and a variety of green and red candied fruit, such as cherries.

These are variants of the Venetian Easter Cake called focaccia. An Easter cake in the Venice of the past (12th-15th century) had to consist of almonds and eggs, and Pierino’s cake reflects this ancient tenet perfectly. The other cakes you can see in his vetrina above, are called torte venexiane – rich Venetian chocolate cakes. But that’s another story we’ll tell in December, the season and feast for which chocolate cakes were originally created. By now, you can find torte venexiane anytime in the colder season, say between November and April, in the pastry stores of Venice.

In case Easter is celebrated late, during the last ten days of April, the markets in Venice offer the first cherries from the Treviso and Verona area. After all, the Veneto is the third-largest producer of cherries in Italy. So if you are in Venice in late April, do look out for cherry cakes as well, and the first cherries at the markets! From the estuary, where the first cherries are ripe in the last week of April, comes the recipe for a cake our family loves to eat on May 1: torta di ciliege e menta con glassa alla calendula – a surprising cake made with freshly picked cherries and mint syrup, and covered with a frosting made from calendual blossoms. Stay tuned – we’ll share this recipe in time for the long May weekend ahead!

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2 Comments

  1. Buona Pasqua!!

    Posted 4.20.19 Reply
    • Iris wrote:

      Grazie mille! Buona Pasqua a te cara!

      Posted 4.21.19 Reply

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