Glossary and Guide to the Festa della Madonna della Salute

This is an article dedicated to all of you who want to participate in the Festa della Salute, taking place in Venice on 21 November. It also comes as eguide to take with you and consult if you are in Venice or planning to visit. Click here to download it as eguide immediately.

Why do Venetians celebrate, for the 386th time on 21 November, their Festa della Salute? It’s much more than a Thanksgiving Feast ushering in Advent time. Venice commemorates the years 1630-31 when almost half of her population, that is 70,000 people, died from the bubonic plague.

This was the last time the Black Death hit Venice. Afterwards, the Venetian Government enacted a system of prevention methods. During 1630-31, Venetian doctors and state officials learnt a lot and were able to prevent further outbreaks of epidemics in Venice.

Contrary to the Redentore Feast that Venetians celebrate in July (commemorating the bubonic plague of 1575), there are now no fireworks in Venice. It’s a quiet feast and celebrating takes place amongst families and in the Basilica della Madonna della SaluteVenetians reach the Basilica via a pilgrimage through town crossing the Grand Canal on a ponton bridge. It’s a special feast celebrated with a “forest of white candles” illuminating this quiet November morning. 

21 November is a collective holiday for all Venetians though it is not an official one in Italy. In the Veneziano, the towns near Venice located in the provinces of Venice, Treviso, Padua and Rovigo, people take off at least a few hours to join festivities. They do come to Venice but they also celebrate the Feast in their own churches.

La festa più sentita dei veneziani: La Festa della (Madonna della) Salute is about wholesale health. Not just human health but it has taken on the meaning of “making Venice a fine place to live again”. Maybe that’s because new initiatives begin showing some effect and Venetians are conscious that their town is currently living a crisis. Crisis means crossroads so there is opportunity in it and not just risk. It’s days like these that really make you think about the future of Venice.

Salute votive bridge, 80.51 meters long. If you have been to the Festa del Redentore and crossed the Redentore Bridge in July, you might recognize the structure: For our Ponte votivo della Salute the three central modules of the Redentore bridge are used. The inauguration of the votive bridge takes place 3 days before 21 November at 12:30 pm. The bridge will stay in place for about five days. Each module is 19.22 meters long and 3.6 meters wide. So it’s rather easy to cross with the exception that during rain the end modules may get slippery. If you want to cross the bridge on a wet day, be sure to wear good shoes.

1 November often starts out foggy and veiled by the caìgo (thick fog) you can see many people arrive in Venice very early in the morning by foot or taking the vaporetto to Rialto. From there people walk to Campo di Santa Maria del Giglio and cross the Grand Canal on the ponton bridge. On the other side of the Grand Canal in Campo San Gregorio you come across the first pop-up stalls where you can buy white ceri (long white candles) to be lit in the church. In a few more minutes you reach the Basilica after crossing this sotopórtego.

There are many people waiting in front of the Basilica. If you arrive later than 9:15 am you may have to wait in the queues for about 10-15 minutes before you can enter the church. Inside, you hand over your cero which will be lit amongst a forest of white candles as you can see below. Your candle will remain lit for about 10 minutes before it is 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 afterwards!! Your candles will be used again at a mass service in the following year.

Fritelle e palloncini: In the meantime stalls pop up about town offering local street food. The main area is just next to the Basilica where the Fiera della Salute takes place. Here you get all kinds of sweet treats including caramelized apples and also the first frittelles. Venetian children get their palloncini (balloons) from the stalls lined up on Rio Terà dei Catecumeni and beyond.

A SECRET YOU MUST KNOW IS THAT ONLY ON 21 NOVEMBER WILL YOU BE ABLE TO TASTE FRITTELLES JUST AS THEY ARE OFFERED DURING CARNIVAL. SO DO VISIT THE BAKERIES AND PASTRY STORES !! YOU’LL ALSO COME ACROSS THE FIRST FOCACCE OF THE SEASON WITH CHRISTMAS JUST A FEW WEEKS AWAY.

La festa continua. Teatro La Fenice and Fondazione Peggy Guggenheim offer free entrance for Venetians in the week before 21 November. So it is really a relaxing week when you take time to discover Venice in the quiet atmosphere of balmy autumn days. Of course we can’t exclude acqua alta but there are ways to avoid and deal with it.

Lettura storica – history: Get the whole picture of the bout of plague hitting Venice in 1630 in Alessandro Manzoni’s 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“.

La castradina. This is the main dish Venetians ate in 1630. They had always eaten it in winter but during those difficult times, smoked mutton was the only substantial meal in town. It has a harsh taste and if you like it I recommend you try it in the Rialto area or at Al Giardinetto. Many Venetian restaurants may not have castradina mentioned in the menu but it’s worth asking your waiter.  The second traditional November dish, a bit less harsh, is riso in cavroman, spicy risotto with smoked mutton.

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