Festa della Madonna della Salute – Glossary and Guide to Celebrating the Most Heart-Felt Feast in Venice

On 21 November 2017, Venice will be celebrating, for the 387th time, La Festa della Madonna della Salute. Venetians have always loved this quiet day, usually dark and dedicated to lighting candles at the Basilica. This is much more than just a sort of Thanksgiving Feast ushering in winter and Christmas in the Veneto.

Contrary to the Redentore Feast celebrated in July, now there are no fireworks in town. It’s a quiet feast. You can see Venetians and people from the estuary and mainland arriving in town from the early morning. They walk towards the Basilica on the same paths they have taken ever since anyone can remember. They walk to participate in the dark yet luminous celebration taking place at the Basilica, on that day when Venetians deeply reconnect with their town.

More often than not, 21 November dawns dark, and the Basilica is shrouded in a blanket made from fog. The only lively note is given by the colorful fair, La Fiera della Salute, with food stalls selling sweet treats and street food next to the Basilica.

This article explains the Feast, which is closest to Venetian hearts, by means of a Glossary. Part of it is written in Venetian so you can get acquainted with the expressions you will encounter in Venice these days.

21 November in Venice represents  a landmark day. Ever since the year 1630, and there has been no interruption, the Feast was celebrated no matter whether times were peaceful or not. This is 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 festivities. Spend a little quiet time in their own, local churches to light candles. Or they come to Venice in the first place, joining thousands of Venetians at the festively decorated Basilica.

Now, why is this Feast, or rather Remembrance Day, still so vivid in Venetians’ minds after 387 years?

During the final days of October 1630, the Venetian government and the inhabitants 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 participate 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 times of Venetian history. So between 1631 and 1687, the basilica was built on the area adjacent to the Dogana da Mar.

La Festa più sentita dei veneziani: So you can see, this Feast is about the perennial topic of health. And since the floods of 1966, it has gained an additional dimension. The health of their city and Lagoon is a topic Venetians think about constantly in autumn. After all, acqua alta recurs frequently and the alien-sounding sirens wake up people at dawn.

Every year, people wait for the sermon of the Patriarch who celebrates the Holy Mass at 11 am. His speech isn’t just about religious topics. He explicitly addresses issues of daily life in Venice, and whether or not progress has been made during the past year to resolve them. Venice is going through a severe crisi. Crises mustn’t be viewed negatively, they mean that we have arrived at a crossroads. There is opportunity in it and not just risk.
Durata della festa: The Festa della Salute does not just take ONE day. To be precise, in 2017 it started on Friday 17 November when the votive bridge was opened by the Venetian Patriarch and the Mayor. Festivities spread across town, though of course the Basilica della Salute remains the focal point.
Ponte Votivo: The Venetian infrastructure and maintenance company, Insula spa, is setting up the Salute votive bridge, 80.51 meters long and resting upon eight boats. Each module is 19.22 meters long and 3.6 meters wide. If you have been to the Festa del Redentore and crossed the Bridge in July, you might recognize the structure: For the Ponte votivo della Salute, the three central modules of the Redentore votive bridge are used. The bridge will stay in place for five days.

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.

Impressioni di buon mattino: 21 November often starts with caìgo (thick fog). From the very early morning, you can watch Venetians arrive on foot or take vaporetti until Rialto or Accademia. The bar caffés are full while many people get a warming cappuccino and cornetto to brace the day. From there, Venetians and visitors walk to Campo di Santa Maria del Giglio from which the Ponte Votivo leads towards the Salute Church.
In Campo San Gregorio, you come across the first pop-up stalls where you can buy the long white ceri to be lit in the church for a few minutes before they are exchanged, as many other people with candles in hand wait in the queues. Don’t think that the candles you bring to church are thrown away – your candle will be used at a mass service in the following year. The Basilica is usually full and you can feel the incense and warmth of the candles all over the place. It’s a subdued atmosphere, a dark vault framed by marble walls and columns that on that special day, dedicated to the survival of Venice, are dressed in red and golden velvet, reflecting the colors and patterns of our town.
Now, after the mass service, don’t leave the Basilica with the other visitors. Walk up towards the altar, past the Icon of Madonna della Salute and into the sacristy and the grounds of the Basilica usually closed to visitors.
Fritelle e palloncini: In the meantime, a few sun rays might break through the fog. Or, it might continue raining and the rain might even get harder. If the weather is good, a lot of food stalls pop up on Rio Terà dei Catechumeni. This collection of food and gift stalls is called La Fiera della Salute.
I’m usually drawn to the apples covered with red syrup. In former times, it used to be pomegranate syrup. You can also buy winter food, including a special mixture of honey and pino mugo, which is a favorite home-made remedy to fight off coughs and a sore throat.
Il menu della Salute: If you want to taste fritole (frittelles) out of season, you can do that on 21 November. Bakeries and pastry stores offer the classic varieties but you also get focacce as Christmas is just round the corner. Venetian children receive little gifts, sweets and palloncini (balloons) from the stalls lined up on Rio Terà dei Catecumeni and beyond. And then finally, for lunch, Venetians still eat castradina, mutton stew with cabbage based on an ancient recipe of the 16th century. You can read more about the Menu Venetians eat on 21 November on my food blog soon!
Il tempo a Novembre: Leaves are usually green, even wisteria … it’s the fig trees showing signs of autumn as their leaves are the first to turn yellow, followed by the ginkgo trees in the Giardini Reali. If it were not for the fog (caìgo) and the diffuse light resulting from the sun rays filtering through, you could imagine it was early spring…
Lettura storica – Historical Reading: Get a broad picture about the bubonic plague that hit Venice in 1630, described by Alessandro Manzoni in his book “I promessi sposi“. Click here for an Italian website offering a good description of the novel. When you go to school in Italy, this is basic reading for all pupils at the scuole medie. In English, this book is titled “The Betrothed“.