Last Updated on December 1, 2023 by Laura Teso
The Salute festival in Venice is the most heartfelt holiday for the Venetians, celebrated every year on November 21st. It honors the ex-voto made by doge Contarini in 1630. At that time, the Plague had already killed a quarter of the city population.
Salute Festival in Venice origins
That Plague epidemy was the same of the famous Italian book I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed). It hit the whole northern Italy between 1630 and 1631.
In Venice it spread after the arrival of some ambassadors, sent from Mantua to seek for help. Venetians knew about the plague, so they put the ambassadors on the island of San Servolo for 40 days. From this historical episode derives the word quarantine. In Italian quarantena.
Nevertheless, the plague spread, because of some workers who made contact with the foreigners. Within a few weeks, it extended to the whole city.
Desperate, the Serenissima organized a procession to pray the Virgin. All those spared by the Plague participated to this celebration for three days and three nights. Finally, the new Doge vowed to erect a solemn temple if the city had survived the disease.
A few weeks after, the epidemic started to decrease until it finally stopped in November 1631. The final count was of about 50,000 deaths in the city alone and almost 100,000 in the whole territory of the Dogado.
Why did they choose November 21st for the Salute Festival in Venice? Well, first of all the Plague ceased in November. Moreover, November 21 is the day of another religious celebration regarding Mary: The Presentation of the Virgin Mary at the Temple. The event is actually part of an apocryphal book. Mary’s parents, childless, made a vow to have a kid. When they had Mary, they brought her to the Temple in Jerusalem to consecrate her to God.
November 21st is also a public holiday in Venice. Why? The day of the official Patron Saint of Venice, San Marco, falls on April 25th. On that very day is also bank holiday for the whole Italy. In these cases, the Italian law allows the Municipality to choose another day as patronal festivity. And Venice has chosen the day of the Madonna della Salute.
Also in Trieste, Istria and Dalmatia, once Venetian dominations, people celebrates this feast. There, la Serenissima built many sanctuaries dedicated to Madonna della Salute, to allow distant people to celebrate.
Salute festival in Venice: what happens
Since then, every year, hundreds of Venetians go to the Salute church to lit a candle and say thanks. It is a very beloved tradition, luckily not touristy, probably also for the period of the year.
Temporary bridge and candles kiosks
To make it easier for the pilgrims to reach the Salute, a temporary votive bridge is set up from November 16th (11 am) to November 22nd (6 am). But keep in mind that authorities close it in case of high tide (over 115 cm). It connects Calle Lanza to Campiello Traghetto (next to the Gritti Palace).
People cross the temporary votive bridge, made by rafts. Then they buy a candle at one of the kiosks around the basilica and light it to thank the Virgin.
Masses during Salute Festival in Venice
Then they can attend to one of the Masses, one per hour from 6 am to 8 pm. The solemn Mass is that of 10 o’ clock, officiated by Venice patriarch.
At the center of the altar is the splendid icon of the black Virgin with child, also called Mesopanditissa (Greek). It means mediator of peace. The Venetians brought it here in 1670, after the fall of Candia (Crete), to save it from the Turks. The beautiful red drapes that adorn the Basilica and the altar are made by Tessiture Bevilacqua, the historic weaving factory of Venice.
On the altar, above the Madonna icon you can some statues. From the left: Venice, represented by a woman, kneeling in front of the Virgin. Then a little angel, casting out an ugly man, representing the Plague. In Venice there’s still a saying about those terrible times and maybe referring to this statues: ugly as the Plague (brutto come la peste).
Castradina soup thanks to the Dalmatians
On that day, it’s a tradition to eat frittelle (sweet fritters) and, as main course, the castradina soup with savoy cabbage. Castradina is castrated ram meat. But why? This is a curious fact, dating back to the Plague time. The city was in fact isolated and there was basically nothing to eat. The only ones who dared to supply the city with food were the Dalmatians. So this ram meat was basically the only meat Venetians could have for that year. In homage to Dalmatians, many Venetians still eat this dish on November 21. At the Punta della Dogana there was a moored vessel, where people served the castradina soup.
But I preferred to head to Piazza San Marco at the Gran Caffè Quadri, a Michelin starred restaurant.
Just for the day, they offered a castradina sandwich for €7 at the counter so I took advantage to go inside and take a look. 😉
In conclusion, it was beautiful to attend to the event and see many people participating in it. Plus I was lucky enough to find the perfect, sunny day.
And now, the short video of that day: