If you’ve ever wanted to visit Venice in the late autumn, to experience that unique city in a different kind of light and with distinctly fewer people thronging around the squares, then why not consider visiting at the time of the Festa della Madonna della Salute – La Salute? The Salute is actually the name of one of Venice’s favourite churches, more formally known as the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute, and the festival centered around it is one of the city’s most important traditional dates. The twenty first of November is a significant day in the Venetian calendar.
During the years 1630 and 1631, Venice was ravaged by a terrible plague epidemic which crippled a city already badly depleted by the war with Austria. Upwards of a third of the population had been killed when the Senate passed a decree stating that, if Venice was freed from the disease, a new church would be built to honour the Virgin Mary. True to their word, when the city was saved the rulers commissioned the young Baldassare Longhena to design the church, which was completed in 1681 – just one year before the architect’s death.
The magnificent, vast domed church was constructed on an enormous platform – more than 300,000 wooden piles support it – in a spectacular location between the Grand Vanal and the Bacino di San Marco on the lagoon, on the Campo della Salute on Dorsosuro. It has, therefore, a prominent position in Venice – both geographically and socially. The church contains an altar in the Baroque style designed by Longhena himself as well as wonderfully impressive works by Tintoretto and Titian.
The salvation of the city of Venice is traditionally celebrated every November 21st at the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, La Festa della Madonna della Salute, and the citizens of the city turn out in their thousands. A specially constructed pontoon bridge is built across the Grand Canal, across which a procession, which begins at St Mark’s Cathedral, passes in order to give thanks to the Virgin and light candles as a symbol of faith.
The pomp and circumstance of the occasion is tempered, however, by the rather more secular presence of stalls in the streets selling toys and sweets of all kinds. As you walk the crowded streets, therefore, you will be cajoled by traders, as well as being soothed by the smell of incense and the praying of the pilgrims.
La Salute is a delightful, parochial commemoration and celebration for the Venetian people and it has an ambience that is predominantly religious but with distinctly secular overtones. There is never a feeling of commercialisation, though. This is a festival that can take visitors right to the heart of the Venetian people and their devotion to their city and their religion.
Air flights to Venice are now much more common than was the case a few years ago. The Venice Marco Polo airport is an easy water taxi journey across the lagoon and is a fabulous way of arriving – especially if you can manage to acquire a seat on the right hand side of the plane. Usually, that will offer you a fantastic panorama of the city as you come in to land. Treviso airport is also only a 30 minute drive from Venice and there is a good, regular connecting bus service between the airport and the bus station at Plaza Roma in the heart of the city.
Hotel accommodation is much easier to find during mid to late November and, at this time of the year, it is possible to find some deals offering excellent value. You might find that some of the canal side restaurants are closed during the evenings but there will still be more than enough places to be able to fully enjoy the sights and tastes of Venice without being overcrowded by other visitors.
La Salute really does seem like a perfect time to plan a trip to this evocative, memorable city.