‘White swan of cities slumbering in thy nest / So wonderfully built among the reeds […] / White phantom city, whose untrodden streets / Are rivers, and whose pavements are the shifting / Shadows of the palaces and strips of sky […]’ – Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Keramos and Other Poems, A Book of Sonnets, Part II, Venice, 1878.
Why did I give you a meeting point at the vaporetto? Is it another island? Not at all!
You are still going to stay on mainland Venice in a quarter (or sestiere as they are known in la Serenissima) called Dorsoduro.
I want you to discover the basilica of La Madonna della Salute, also called Santa Maria della Salute or Saint Mary of the Health (I prefer the Italian). It is the amazing building you can see when you are on la Piazza San Marco. You know? The gigantic white dome? Yeah, that one!
You can actually go there by foot, but it is more practical and quicker to take the waterbus. The stop is called ‘Salute‘. Easy, isn’t it?
I dedicate this article to my sister. It is one of her favourite monuments in Venice, and how right she is!
You ask, why is a church named for ‘health’? Well, it is quite simple. The church was built after the 1630-1631 wave of Black Death that decimated a part of the Italian population. It was meant to pray the Virgin to keep a healthy air in La Serenissima and thank her for having spared the most part of the Venetian people during the epidemy (that along with the plague of 1575-1577 killed off one third of the people in Venice. I do not really call that ‘spared’, but well…) A young architect, Baldassare Longhena, was chosen because his project answered the need of grandeur and magnificence.
The constrution started in 1631, and the church was finally consecrated in 1687. This church has the peculiarity to have been built on the extremity of the mainland, right in the lagoon actually. When you take the waterbus, you just have that feeling of awe that makes you open your mouth, widen your eyes and just keeps you quiet. It is a white building with two domes and two towers. On top of the main dome, the Virgin Mary can be seen holding the bastone, or stick, symbol of the power over the seas.
As for the interior, it is very bright and clear. However, I did not take any picture of it. I don’t even know if it is allowed within the church. I just did not do it to respect people’s prayers. But here is the view you have from the entrance.
If you come to visit on the 21st of November, know that there is an event called la Festa della Madonna della Salute. It is a pilgrimage which has been organised every year for three centuries. It is not so much about tourism than about faith. A lot of people praying will be people from Venice. The pilgrimage is meant to thank the Virgin Mary for Her protection, and pray for good health. In order to facilitate the pilgrimage, a temporary wooden bridge is set up every year over the Gran Canale. On that day, you can taste a typical dish called ‘la castradina‘, a mutton stew.
I love this basilica because it gives you a focal point. As it was meant to reassure Venetian about the plague, and more generally about their health, I also think that it was built to give a sense of belonging and of bearings. You know where you are when you can see it. It is rather fascinating to notice that the various episodes of plague that exterminated the population still holds a grim power in Venice. La Salute is their reminder of past decays and dark times that are annihilated by a pure and white building, an allegory of the Virgin Mary in itself.
You can also visit a few places around the church. For instance, you have the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, a modern art museum. If you wonder what can be found on the extremity of the Dorsoduro, it is la Punta della Dogana. Nowadays, it is also a museum, but in remote times, it was the customs’ building.
I am afraid we are going to take the vaporetto once again. We are going to my favourite part of Venice (I say that in every article, I know!).
I M Gullivering.