Last updated on 20 November 2018
On 21 November 2018, Venice will be celebrating, for the 388th time in a row, La Festa della Madonna della Salute. Venetians have always loved this quiet day, which starts out dark usually. But then – many candles will be lit at the Basilica. This feast is so much more than just a sort of Thanksgiving Feast, ushering in winter and Christmas in the Veneto while recalling how Venice was saved from the last outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1630/31.
Contrary to the Redentore Feast celebrated in July, there are no fireworks. It’s a quiet feast, which belongs to the Venetians. In addition, people arrive from the estuary and mainland in the early morning. They walk towards the Basilica like the always did, along the same calli they have taken ever since anyone can remember. They start the day out in the darkness, to take part in the luminous celebration taking place at the Basilica, which is how Venetians deeply reconnect with their town.
In the morning, the Basilica is shrouded in a blanket of white fog. Often, if the sun doesn’t come out for the day, the only lively note comes from the colorful fair, La Fiera della Salute, food stalls selling sweet treats and street food next to the Basilica on Rio Terà dei Catecumeni
This article explains the Feast, which is closest to our Venetian hearts, with a glossary. Part of it is written in Venessian, so you get acquainted with the expressions you will meet in Venice these days.
21 November represents a landmark feast in the Venetian calendar. Ever since the year 1630, and there has been no interruption, La Festa della Salute was celebrated no matter whether times were peaceful or not. It’s a collective holiday for all Venetians, though not an official one in Italy. In the Veneziano, the Regione del Veneto and the surrounding towns in the province of Venice, Treviso, Padua and Rovigo, people take off at least a few hours to join in the festivities. They look forward to spending a quiet time, not only at the Basilica della Salute, but in the churches on the Riviera and in the Estuary. Many come to Venice, joining thousands of visitors to light candles at the Basilica, decorated with red Bevilacqua velvet on this particular day.
Now, why is this Feast so vivid in Venetian hearts after 388 years?
In late October 1630, the Venetian Government and the residents of the city were desperate. Within eight months, 47.000 Venetians had died from the bubonic plague: One third of the population!
Doge Nicolò Contarini and Patriarch Giovanni Tiepolo called the surviving population to take part in a religious procession. Endless sessions of prayers followed, lasting three days and three nights. At the end, the Doge made a solemn promise to the Virgin Mary that Venetians would build a basilica in case the town survived the epidemic. They chose to build the basilica opposite Piazza San Marco for several reasons. One was to make sure that future Governments would always remember the most difficult time in Venetian history. Between 1631 and 1687, the basilica was built next to the Dogana da Mar.
La Festa più sentita dei veneziani: So you can see, this Feast is all about health. Since the devastating floods of 1966, it gained an extra dimension. The health of their city and Lagoon is a topic Venetians think about constantly in autumn. After all, acqua alta recurs often (just recall the latest serious episode, on 29 October 2018), and the alien-sounding sirens wake up people at dawn.
I ceri della Salute: After crossing the floating bridge, which connects Campo Santa Maria del Giglio with Calle San Gregorio, visitors usually stop in Campo San Gregorio, buying one or more white candles, i ceri. But you can also buy them on Campo della Salute, in front of the Basilica.
Vigilia della Festa della Salute: In the evening of 20 November, young Venetians set out for a visit to the Basilica together with the Patriarch. They cross the votive bridge to reach the Basilica della Salute for an evening prayer.