Published: November 30th 2009
November 22nd 2009
Here she is--Santa Maria atop her church
This week I visited yet another church. This church, which I shall leave unnamed, was awful. I hated its pitched gothic ceilings and gloomy interior, hated the incongruous-looking chapels flanking the sides. Admittedly, I am "churched out" as we say lately. One church, two churches a day for months and it all starts to look the same. Well, not quite. As I left this church I said to myself, "it isn't Salute."
"Salute" is the nickname of our local church, Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. It is not the closest church to us, because there are churches everywhere in Venice. Though Salute is perhaps a city block away from us, there is another church between here and there. But Salute is special.
Salute sits at the entrance to the Grand Canal. It is here that Venice opens up into the lagoon, and the ocean beyond; the church steps lead down practically into the water. From Salute, the domes and bell tower of San Marco are visible. Yet it is Salute's own towering, white domes that show up in numerous photos of the Grand Canal. Salute is a major landmark for all of Venice, perhaps even as
much as San Marco.
It is a landmark for us, too and for many reasons.
Practically, it is the nearest vaporetto stop to us. And because it is close and the children know the way, when they get restless we tell them to go, run for a while and meet us at Salute.
We frequently walk over to sit on the steps of Salute in the evening. When it was hot, in August and September, it was a relief to feel the sea breeze that is strong there. Now that it is autumn we go to enjoy the incomparable quality of the light as the day dies down. Here I never tire of the contrast of the water with the sunlight on the buildings, buildings of terra cotta red and orange and pale yellow and cream. The sky is wider here, too. I realize that the outside space associated with the church is as much a factor in its beauty as the church itself;and give a sense of openness that is fairly rare in Venice, a place of secret passages and enclosed squares.
Approaching Salute from the water (as we often do by vaporetto), is
dramatic; the church seems to rise from the ocean. From the Accademia bridge, Salute is stunning as well, as it is from many vantage points. To us, it may be the prettiest church in Venice, though the competition is stiff.
Built in 1631, the Doge of the period (Nicolo Contarini) said that he would build a church to the Virgin Mary if Venice was spared from the Plague. And so it was: only one in three Venetians died, and thus, the city went on and the church was completed in 1681.
Unlike many of the churches here with their high, narrow, gothic ceilings and dark interiors, inside it is all light and space and air. This is a white church made with Istrian stone; clear glass windows stream in light. Centered around a large dome, the church has columns around the dome on the inside; that inside circle is only open during the Festa della Salute, and only then did I get to see (but not, alas, to photograph) the lovely marble mosaics on the floor. Pieces of marble are arranged as roses, in tribute to the Virgin. Paintings by Titian and Tintoretto grace the church. The
Walking down the calle on the way to Salute
main altar depicts the story of the plague with Venice, portrayed as a woman, in supplication to Mary (holding baby Jesus), who sends an angel to drive away the plague, depicted by a hag.
Every year on November 21st is the Festa della Madonna della Salute in celebration of this church and the miracle of the preservation of Venice. Bells begin ringing at seven am every morning for a week and rung again at eleven for special masses. A pontoon bridge is set up across the Grand Canal between Salute and San Marco and Venetian officials parade across for the presentation of the Virgin and also to handle the large number of visitors to the church. This year, as every year, vendors set up shop around the church, much like our vendors for the county and state fairs do back home. Most prominent were the Sicilian sweets vendors, selling nougats, marzipan, candied nuts and fried food of many varieties. Donuts were fabulous, but most popular around our house were fritters filled with nutella. There were balloons and toys and a large assortment of candles for sale. There was even a little booth staffed by nuns giving away water
Sweets of all kinds were for sale during the weekend of the Salute festival. Kebabs of fruit dipped in caramel were popular.
This is not a tourist event, as so much is in Venice. Though there were out-of-town visitors, the crowds were mostly Italian, and primarily of the Veneto. We had never seen our little calle so packed. From sundown Friday through Saturday night, the streets were impassable in places, people shoulder to shoulder in the street, moving to and fro as a single entity. People streamed into the church in droves, carrying candles to light and pray for their health or that of family members. There were so many people that lines were formed outside the church to go in the side doors and out the front; traffic was carefully controlled by the local police.
Inside, masses were being said every few hours; people lined up to say confession, and bring in their candles for lighting. Church workers handled the lighting and extinguishing of candles in an assembly line fashion. This did not, oddly, diminsh the experience for me, or for any of the churchgoers. I actually lit a candle (when in Rome...er, Venice) and sent up hopeful thoughts for the health of family and friends. And thanks for the beauty that is Salute.
Also popular were fried sweets, like fritters with nutella, and donuts. Here, Will and Gabriel are sampling the goods.
There are more photos below