Venetian Rituals: Madonna della Salute Festival
National holidays are fundamental traditions which are practiced in most countries all over the world and none more so the case than in Italy, specifically Venice. Venetian rituals have been a part of the city’s culture and history since its origins many centuries ago and seeing as though one of their most important festivals – Madonna della Salute – took place last week, I thought to tell you a little bit about what happens in the city on this particular day and of its significance to the Venetian residents who take part in observing this time-honoured tradition.
To give you a bit more context behind the tradition Santa Madonna della Salute refers to Saint Mary of Health which is a Catholic Church situated along the Grand Canal, built in the late seventeenth century and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. If you have ever been to Venice or even just seen a picture of its skyline you will instantly recognise the church for its iconic domed roof which looms above the rest of the city. Its purpose in being commissioned was in thanks to the Madonna for their deliverance from the Plague, a devastating bout of which spread throughout the country in the early seventeenth century killing a third of the city’s population. This is also the reason for the festival and celebrations – in thanks for the end of the epidemic – which takes place every year on the 21 November.
On this day all residents in the city take the day off from work and school and tend to gather on the opposite side of the river to the Salute. The Patriarch of Venice then arrives in the morning (the bishop of the city) to lead the procession across the river to the church where mass is given all day and people are encouraged to light a candle in memory of loved ones who have passed away or perhaps to someone you would like to wish good health to. Every year during this procession in an impressive feat a temporary bridge is constructed to allow for the horde of people to pass over the Grand Canal. The atmosphere is very emotional and sincere but it also an exciting time where family, friends, tourists and travellers all come together to take part in this immersive cultural experience.
Aside from the procession there are other traditional elements to the festival which are heavily anticipated – the (stalls) are set up around the Salute and San Marco area which sell a variety of sweets, savoury snacks, festival souvenirs, toys and of course candles. Cafes and restaurants across town display signs confirming that they are serving , a traditional Venetian dish consisting of smoked mutton stewed with cabbage and which was thought to have been an excellent antidote for the plague. If mutton isn’t to your taste then perhaps you can try and find a stall selling fried doughnuts with nutella – a favourite of my Italian buddies on this festival day.
So if you happen to be in or around the Venice area towards the end of November then make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to experience this fascinating local tradition. If you don’t reckon you’ll be able to visit Venice during this time but would still like to be in the city during a traditional festival then here are some others that you could check out:
- Carnival (– Undoubtedly the biggest of the Venetian festivals with up to 3 million coming to attend every year, it has ambiguous origins with tradition stating it was celebrated due to the victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia in the twelfth century. However other explanations point towards the start of Lent and the need of the townspeople to rid themselves of their rich food and drink which they did so in a very celebratory fashion.
- Feast of Saint Mark – Coincidentally falling on the anniversary of Italy’s liberation from the Nazi’s in 1945, this day in April is also a celebration of the city’s patron saint, Saint Mark (he is always depicted with a winged lion, the symbol of the city). On this day it is traditional for men to give the woman they love a (a red rose).
- Festa del Redentore – Another festival celebrating the end of the plagues of the late sixteenth century which had higher mortality rates than that which is celebrated during the Salute. During the celebrations thousands of boats fill the lagoon to watch an impressive firework display in the evening. It is then tradition for the young people of the city to head over the Lido (where I live across the lagoon from Saint Mark) to wait for the sun to rise over the city.
Hopefully you guys will get the opportunity to be in the city during one of these festivals as they truly are very immersive and exciting experiences.
Till then x
Patriarch of Venice leading the procession to the Salute
Temporary bridge constructed over the Grand Canal
Some of the many tasty treats sold during the festival