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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of Santissimo Redentore in Venice

What is Santissimo Redentore?

Santissimo Redentore is a neoclassical 16th-century Roman Catholic church in Venice that was designed by Andrea Palladio as a plea for forgiveness during a deadly plague.


Santissimo Redentore

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Santissimo Redentore History

During the first wave of the bubonic plague in Venice, between August 1575 and the following February, over 3,600 Venetians died. Most of these victims lived in crowded slums and the Jewish ghetto, where sanitation was poor. Lower-class citizens were blamed for the contagion because they were openly breaking the quarantine rules; many could not afford to stop working, while others had to leave their homes to care for sick relatives. Rich Venetians also broke the rules, many of them travelling to their countryside villas to escape the pandemic, but these actions were less visible and so escaped censure.


Soon the authorities relaxed the anti-contagion measures, lifting the citywide ban on crowds, manufacturing and trade. But the number of fatalities continued to rise. The doge consulted two medical experts, who claimed that ‘the infection was not plague but a famine fever that affected only the undernourished poor’. They were proved wrong within a few days when the contagion was seen to have spread like wildfire through the households of both rich and poor.


A coordinated medical response was launched. Physicians wearing eerie beaked masks navigated the ghostly canals in gondolas. They were assisted by Jesuit priests and barbers, who lanced boils, applied leeches and unwittingly spread disease by marking the doors of contaminated households with the infected blood of victims. Plague patients who lived in the same household were locked in, while their family members were sent to stay on I Lazzaretti, two small Venetian islands that were also used to quarantine lepers.


By September 1576, it was clear these measures weren’t working. Superstition, fuelled by desperation and uncertainty, was rife in Italy. In Bologna, it was forbidden to discuss the plague, as if death could be summoned merely by using the word peste. In Venice, the authorities turned to God, in the belief that the plague was a form of divine retribution for humanity’s sinfulness. The doge and Senate voted in favour of building a new church and dedicating it to Christ the Redeemer as a votive offering; a plea for forgiveness. The church of Santissimo Redentore proved to be an effective plague deterrent; its foundations were laid in May 1577, and by July the pandemic had ended, though it had taken with it a quarter of the city’s population.


Andrea Palladio was chosen to design Il Redentore and it’s an iconic example of his stately Neoclassical style. The whitewashed interior is largely without ornament or distraction, a solemn memorial to the 50,000 victims of the plague. An annual festival of thanksgiving and prayer, culminating at the church, had already been planned, so it was designed with ceremony and celebration in mind. The church’s position, on the banks of the Giudecca Canal, dominates the skyline. Thus it has long served both as an enduring reminder of the plague and of the divine intervention Venetians believed delivered them from it. The Festa del Redentore is still an important festival in the city, celebrated each July since 1577. The grand flight of stairs at the church’s entrance lends a sense of theatre to the votive procession that makes its way across a specially constructed bridge leading from the Zattere to the Giudecca.


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