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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice

What is Santa Maria della Salute?

Santa Maria della Salute, often referred to as simply ‘Salute’, is a grand 17th-century Baroque church designed by Baldassare Longhena and built as a plea for intercession during a 17th-century Venetian plague.

Santa Maria della Salute

Santa Maria della Salute History

In the 14th century, the Italian writer Giovanni Boccaccio witnessed the Black Death decimate Europe. He was struck by how swiftly the disease overwhelmed the human body. Unsuspecting victims, he wrote, ‘having breakfasted in the morning with their kinsfolk, acquaintances and friends, supped that same evening with their ancestors in the next world’. When the dreaded peste returned to Venice in the 1570s, a votive church was commissioned by the state, in a bid to win God’s mercy. Miraculously, the plague subsided shortly after the foundations of the Santissimo Redentore were laid. Venetians would never forget that their prayers were successfully answered in one of their city’s darkest hours.

Bubonic plague returned to Venice in the 17th century, killing approximately one-third of the population. The authorities turned to a higher power once again, but this time they asked the Blessed Virgin to intercede on their behalf. Patriarch Giovanni Tiepolo ordered that the Holy Sacrament be displayed in Venice’s cathedral, the church of San Pietro di Castello, as well as in six churches dedicated to the Madonna. The Virgin Mary was considered a protector of Venice and its waters: when the city was officially founded in the year AD 421, the date happened to coincide with the Feast of the Annunciation.

In 1630, the Venetian Senate made a formal offer to the Virgin: if she stopped the plague, they would build a votive church in her honour. The pandemic died down shortly after this plea was made as winter approached and the cooler weather reduced the number of plague-ridden fleas in Venice. The authorities honoured their side of the bargain. The first stone of a new church dedicated to Saint Mary of Health was laid in 1631. The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute was designed by the then relatively unknown architect Baldassare Longhena.

One of the most interesting artworks inside the basilica is an icon now known as the Madonna della Salute, painted in Crete in the 12th century. It’s a rare depiction of Mary with a black face, brought back from Candia in 1669 by Francesco Morosini. In the 1970s, jewels set into the icon were stolen from it. Within the church you’ll also find Jacopo Tintoretto’s monumental Wedding at Cana, moved here when the monastery for which it was painted was suppressed in the mid-17th century.

The waterside location of Longhena’s church is important because it was intended to be visible to all, an enduring symbol of hope and thanks for Venetians and incoming travellers alike. When boats enter Venice by sea, they are greeted by the sight of the Salute’s magnificent Baroque dome, influenced by St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. The Salute is also unusual in that it was designed specifically to host an annual waterside procession, the Feste della Salute. The Blessed Virgin is still honoured here each year on the 21st of November. Boats are lined up to form a pontoon bridge, leading Venetians over the Grand Canal to the basilica. The procession culminates with gondoliers bringing their oars to be blessed by a priest on the church steps, and a thanksgiving Mass is held inside the basilica.

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