Celebrating La Festa della Madonna della Salute – Glossary and Guide

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.

Every year, Venetians get ready for the Patriarch’s sermon, who celebrates the Holy Mass at 11 am. His speech isn’t so much about religious topics, but addresses issues of daily life in Venice, and whether or not progress has been made during the past year to resolve them. So yes, Venice is going through a severe crisi. Inhabitants leave for several reasons, the Lagoonscape is not balanced and might precipitate further bouts of acqua alta instead help prevent them. But then, crises mustn’t be viewed negatively, but express 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, it starts on 20 November, when the votive bridge is 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 which are lit in the church for a few minutes before they are exchanged, as many other people wait, with candles in hand, 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 made from marble and columns that on that special day, dedicated to the survival of Venice, wear red and golden velvet, reflecting the colors and patterns of Venice.
Now, after 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 buildings 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, you will see many stalls selling street food and gifts, on Rio Terà dei Catechumeni at La Fiera della Salute.
I’m usually drawn to the apples covered with red syrup, because of their color:-) In former times, these apples were glazed with pomegranate syrup. You can also buy winter food, including a special mixture of honey and pino mugo, still 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 round the corner. Venetian children receive little gifts, sweets and palloncini (balloons) from the stalls on Rio Terà dei Catecumeni and beyond. And then finally, for lunch, Venetians eat castradina, mutton stew with cabbage based on an ancient recipe of the 16th century.
Il tempo a Novembre: Leaves are usually green, even wisteria might still look yellowish green … 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, it might well be early spring…
Lettura storica – Historical documents: Get a broad picture of 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“.

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  1. sara wrote:

    i shared this with my community in aviano, loved it !

    Posted 11.26.17 Reply
    • Iris wrote:

      Grazie di cuore Sara !!!

      Posted 11.27.17 Reply

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