When you arrive in Venice tonight, you will notice a festive air about the city, despite the crowds. Restaurants are offering fancy menus, and there are lanterns adorning the quays, i baloni del Redentor. There’s much anticipation in the air as Venice is celebrating one of the two feasts that are so truly, and only, Venetian. To some of us, this feast is even dearer than Christmas or Easter, and in this post, we are going to tell you more about it. We start by giving you the true, historical, background, in a very visual way. You probably know that Venetians celebrate the end of a deadly outbreak of the bubonic plague that killed more than one-third of the population within six months. So now, let’s dig a little deeper to see what really happened and why it coined Venetian mentality for good.
The following paragraphs are not fiction but the little known reconstruction of summer 1576 in Venice.
What I’m telling you in this post is based on the German history book, Die Pest in Venedig 1575 – 1577, relating details of how the Republic of Venice fought against the bubonic plague in 1575-77. The German-French TV Station, Arte, made a video on Venise en 1575 (Venice in 1575). Click here to watch this video in French, and here to view it in German.
Imagine being traveler in summer 1576, bound for Venice. On a sunny morning in July 1576, your boat is arriving at the Bocca di Porto del Lido, just outside the Lagoon, off a sand bank called Scanno della Piscotta (where the larger merchant boats were anchoring. Contrary to our times, large boats were never allowed into the Lagoon).
Along the quays, there is sheer chaos. Goods are perishing in the sun, unpacked and unraveling. The Venetian military are patrolling the Lagoon entry. The only boats allowed in are cogs from Istria and Dalmatia, carrying olive oil, dried cheese, twice-baked breads, and heaps of pine branches, bunches of freshly picked rosemary, salvia and thyme.
Business, and life, in Venice has come to a complete standstill, for this is a city struck by the bubonic plague, claiming 60,000 lives, that is, one third of the population, within six months.
In July 1576, Venice is still caught in her fight against this highly contagious disease. The cities on the Dalmatian coast are stepping in voluntarily (read more about Venice and Dalmatia here), offering help and taking over business for a Venice completely shut down. They did save Venice, by the way.
Imagine you arrive in the Lagoon on board a Dalmatian ship carrying pine twigs and herbs, so what can you see inside the Lagoon? To the left, you can make out about a thousand (!!) Venetian boats of all sizes anchored in the shallow waters, which is a surprising sight indeed. These boats are the temporary home to the victims of the plague, a sort of mini hospitals, because the two Lazzaretto islands, where monasteries are caring for the stricken people, can’t take in more patients. To the right, you can see another thousand (!!) boats or so moored off the island Lazzaretto Vecchio (in front of the Lido).
Part of the pine twigs, food and herbs are delivered to the islands Lazzaretto Vecchio (off the Lido) and Lazzaretto Nuovo (next to Sant’Erasmo), and the rest is dumped along Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice. Venetian physicians asked for the herbs and pine twigs, hoping to kill the germs by burning pines and herbs and enveloping the sick people in this healing smoke. Aromatherapy, Venetian style. The herbs delivered by the Dalmatian cities to Venice were also used to prepare potions for the sick. This method, combining herbs and healing smoke, first developed by Hippocrates, did work, and three times as many lives were saved in Venice than in other European cities during episodes of the bubonic plague.
And what does Venice look like herself in this torrid July of 1576? Streets are empty, while heaps of pine twigs are burnt on the campi. The Senate of the Republic of Venice just ordered the Venetians to stay in their houses for eight consecutive days, in order to reduce contagion. People seen in the steets are put into prison, so the emergency measures work and people stay at home. On the campi and in the courtyards, the Venetian state police, monks, nuns, and physicians are taking care of the fires burning the herbs, and distributing food and water to the residents. The Lagoon is enveloped in a healing cloud of smoke, yet, the outbreak of this bubonic plague lasted until December 1576.
On 3 September 1576, Doge and Patriarch make a festive vow to build a church on the island Giudecca, a garden island during those times. Crossing a makeshift bridge made of 170 boats, to reach the church from the Zattere quays, the Government, the Patriarch and the Venetians made their first pilgrimage in summer 1577, when the Redentore church was still made of wood and architect Andrea Palladio at work, planning the white marble church that we can see today.
But now, let’s take you back into our times! How do we celebrate El Redentor – the Redeemer today? With lots of summer food, fireworks, and regattas! Here’s the link to our Page dedicated to the Redentore Feast, where we share menus, the program and more resources!
Until about fifty years ago, the Redentore Feast was celebrated on a smaller scale, says Grandmother Lina. It was almost a private feast as Venetian families gathered in the evening, bringing picnic baskets and wine to enjoy a dinner in the rambling, private gardens on Giudecca, or along the quays around the Redentore Church. Many also chose to remain in their neighborhood, celebrating on the campo or in the courtyard with friends and neighbors, or inviting guests onto the rooftop terrace :-)
Venetians in the 1950s did recall how pines and herbs once saved the lives of their ancestors:
On the night of the Redentore Feast, they adorned gardens with pine and juniper twigs and ate dishes flavored with herbs, amongst the baloni del Redentor, paper lanterns, usually yellow but sometimes also red and blue. And, there was a special dish served in the evening, which we seem to have forgotten at all: Summer frittelles, made from almond milk, olive oil, flour, dried cheese, and flavored with rosemary, sage and thyme. The ingredients brought to Venice by the ships from Dalmatia … We will share this recipe by Nonna Lina in our book Roses and Spices.
Click on the image below and join the Venetians celebrating their own feast, when the Redentore church is linked to the city by a pontoon bridge spanning Canale della Giudecca. We include links to webcams, so you can watch the fireworks, see the menus and add more links on the background of this special evening.6