Every year, on November 21st, Venice celebrates the feast of Salute. The word “salute” literally means “good health” and on this day we use to go to Mass and pray Our Lady for the good health of our city and families.
The festival is both a religious holiday and an expression of laic folklore, similar to the Thanksgiving holiday occurring overseas.
If you’re planning to visit Venice in November, save the date and, if you can, join the festival yourself.
A brief history of Salute Church
If you ask Venetians which is the church of Venice they love the most, 1 out of 3 will probably say: the Church of Salute.
That’s quite funny, especially if you consider that there are 148 churches in town. Can you guess why the Basilica della Salute is so popular and beloved by locals?
To know the answer, you’ll have to go back to the XVII century…
Back in 1630, a 26 yo brilliant architect found his project chosen by the Serenissima Republic for the realization a magnificent church facing the Grand Canal.
The Senate decided then to build a church dedicated to Holy Mary, moved by the hope that it would have put an end to the terrible plague, which was lashing the city of Venice and had killed approximately 12.000 people by then.
We find this same plague in Lombardy, in the famous novel “The Betrothed” by A. Manzoni, an amazing book which I am to recommend to all those who haven’t read it yet and wanna get to know the Italian history and culture better.
Sadly, plagues were recurring events in those centuries: hygienic conditions were precarious and Venice was what we will today call a hub: a prosperous, busy port where many merchants, soldiers and ships arrive and depart weekly. The infection was inevitable.
Over 1/4 of the population died and when the plague finally ended, the church symbolized a thanksgiving to Holy Mary for releasing Venice from the epidemic.
Among 11 projects presented by just as many well known architects, the Senate eventually made its decision and went for the plan made by the young architect, which represented a church of huge dimensions and unusual octagonal shape.
That promising young architect was Baldassarre Longhena, nowadays considered one of the mayor exponents of Baroque architecture.
The church will have been completed only in 1687, few years after the artist’s death.
Dedicated to “Our Lady of Good Health”, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute is the symbol both of Dorsoduro district and Venetian devotion to Virgin Mary. It is also a remarkable icon of Baroque art.
The Salute feast today
The Salute day is celebrated every year on November 21st.
In the past, the Doge himself guided the procession heading to the church, honoring the vow and praying the Virgin Mary to preserve the city in good health.
To make people reach the church as easily as possible, since the feast has been established, a temporary wooden bridge (also called votive bridge, or bridge of boats) is built on the Grand Canal and connects one bank to the other, from Santa Maria del Giglio to San Gregorio.
Children, teenagers, grandparents and so ahead, the feast involved all of us. The narrow calli get crowded and people wait patiently to walk some steps ahead.
On cue, strangers start up conversations, families take benefit from the waiting to put colorful scarfs and hats on chilly children. A street seller loudly invites to buy your candles from him.
The habit is to take a candle into the church as an offer and light it, praying for the good health of the family and beloved ones.
By the chance, in this same time of the year, a similar feast occurs overseas: Thanksgiving holiday.
I remember that when I was a kid I couldn’t wait to get out of the crowded church to run ahead of my parents up to the candy stands.
There, I finally got my prize: caramelised almonds and hazelnuts, a red balloon and, if I behaved really well, a sugary “frittella” ( “frittella” or “fritola” is a Venetian style donought )
With an all day long procession and uncountable candy stands, the Salute feast represents a perfect mix of religious devotion and joyful laic celebration.
Should you be lucky enough to visit Venice on this day, please respect the vow yourself and feel free to join the celebration.
Be aware that the Salute feast is one of the oldest and most beloved festivals among Venetians and is not a commercial holiday. So please, be respectful and discreet.
The feast mainly takes place at the church and nearby area, but a great festive atmosphere can be experienced everywhere in town.
Before you visit
Holy Mass: every hour, from 6 am to 8 pm.
Don’t get lost: should you be reaching the Church from Saint Mark Square, then the easiest way would be to cross yourself the votive bridge.
But hey…Mind the map! This is a temporary bridge, so you won’t find it on google map. Localize the Gondola’s Traghetto stop of Santa Maria del Giglio: the bridge of boats will appear in front of you (in Venice we love magic, you know)
You can find the exact location of Salute Church here.
Put warm clothes on, the winter’s just started. Expect to find crowds everywhere all the day long. Still, the busiest hours of the day are usually around lunch time and in the evening.