Santa Maria della Salute, Venice
Few building are as elegant and well located as Santa Maria della Salute – or, simply, Salute in Venice. The story of this church is both miraculous and casual: a story of relief after a horrific epidemics of plague and a story of the skills and ambitions of a young architect.
UNESCO World Heritage status
Year of construction
Branch of Christianity
Map of the site
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History of Salute
Black Death – bubonic plague – reached Europe in 1348 and lingered for several centuries. Nobody knew when and how the epidemics will strike, but it did, again and again.
During the Thirty Years War the German and French troops carried the plague to Northern Italy and in 1629 epidemics started in Milan. In a few months, time plague reached also Venice. There was a quarantine island of San Clemente – all suspects of deadly infection had to stop there for a while before coming to Venice. But, somebody, reportedly, one carpenter, did not follow the strict rules and infection started in Venice City.
In 1630 – 1631 Venice lost some 30% of the population: bubonic plague killed some 46 thousand people. 48 thousand people died in other islands of the lagoon.
Now, when the measures of quarantine were too late, people had to rely on God’s mercy. There were organized prayers and processions to the churches which were devoted to the saints who were revered as guards against the epidemics. Only by the end of 1630, the epidemics started to recede. Since then plague epidemics have not returned to Venice, but we never know when this will happen again.
Tender for the new church
On October 22, 1630, Venetian Senate decreed that a new church has to be built. As the saints did not help, this church had to be dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Health (health in Italian – Salute). Around this time the epidemics started to disappear and many Venetians were in a religious frenzy – they had to act to express their gratitude and a deep wish never to experience the epidemics again.
This was not a new practice – five churches in Venice are devoted to salvation from the plague and Salute is the most recent one.
At first, there was selected a place. It had to be close to the main shrine of Venice – Saint Mark’s Basilica to enable the processions of gratitude. Eight potential locations were proposed and finally was chosen the best one. The new church had to be built near the tip of Punta Della Dogana, the customs house. Thus it would great visitors to the city, it would be at the Grand Canal and close to the St. Mark’s Square.
Earlier in this site was located church and monastery, that was granted by Venice to the Teutonic Knights in 1256 in gratitude for the help of knights in the war against Genoa. In 1592 these buildings were returned to the Patriarchate of Venice. These buildings were razed to the ground.
The tender on the architectural design aimed to select a structure with a flashy design at the same time keeping the expenses under control. Eleven submissions were received but most were not up to the requirements.
Happily, there was a clear leader: 26 years young and talented Baldassare Longhena. His proposal was unusual, flashy and at the same time, the expenses were calculated and acceptable. His proposal won with a large majority of votes.
New symbol of Venice
Salute was constructed in 1631 – 1687. Longhena died in 1682 when his work of life was nearing completion. The works were finished by his talented pupil Antonio Gaspari.
The gorgeous architecture and brilliant setting of the structure did something that seemed to be impossible: Salute became one of the symbols of Venice, this gorgeous city with hundreds of outstanding and legendary structures of world fame.
Venice has many traditions and one of the most important ones is Festa Della Madonna Della Salute. Each year on November 21 the city officials are parading from Saint Mark’s Basilica to the Salute in order to express their gratitude for getting rid of the plague. Between the churches is the Grand Canal. The people are crossing the water over a specially arranged pontoon bridge which is made of many barges.
Description of Santa Maria Della Salute
Longhena came up with a highly innovative and bold idea: to build an enormous rotunda. The whole church was just a rounded hall with a dome on top and smaller extensions in all directions.
The structure was built on one million wooden piles. Salute was constructed from Istrian stone – a dense, marble-like limestone as well as brick, which is covered with marble dust (marmorino).
The church is octagonal, with eight facades. The most impressive facade, naturally, is facing the Grand Canal. On the opposite side of it is the shrine with another, smaller dome and two bell-towers. 16 massive buttresses support the dome – each of the buttresses is adorned with expressive orecchioni – “big ear”.
The facade is decorated with many sculptures of saints and the Virgin Mary – also on the top of the tallest dome is a statue of the Virgin.
Santa Maria Della Salute church is one of the best examples of Baroque style and has inspired the construction of numerous similar churches in Europe and elsewhere from the marvelous San Simeon Piccolo at the other end of the Grand Canal to the giant Rotunda of Xewkija in Malta.
Salute consists of the central hall, entrance part, ambulatory in the far end, and six chapels.
The interior is somewhat more restricted but Salute contains many outstanding art values. Many works of art are referencing the Black Death. Some of the most outstanding works were moved here from other Venetian churches.
Art of Titian
Salute is deservedly proud of a very rich collection of one of the greatest painters of all time: Titian. These works were created one century before Salute, for other structures.
Several of Titian’s works come from the Santo Spirito church on Isola, the island with a cemetery between Venice and Murano. Similar to Salute, this church also was embellished during the plague in 1510 – 1512. Artworks from this church were moved to Salute in 1657 – 1659 when Augustinian monks were evicted from Santo Spirito. Later the church was abandoned and gradually turned into a ruin.
List of Titian’s works in Salute include:
- Saint Mark Enthroned with Saints Cosmas, Damian, Sebastian and Roch
- The Descent of the Holy Ghost
- Ceiling paintings: David and Goliath, Abraham and Isaac, Cain and Abel
- Eight tondi (large, round paintings) in the great sacristy
- “Pentecost” in the nave
Some other works of art
- “Marriage at Cana” – painting by Tintoretto at the great sacristy which includes his self-portrait;
- Altar paintings of Luca Giordano;
- The pavement of the church with 33 roses which symbolize the 33 years of Jesus life.
- Jeff Cotton, Salute, The Churches of Venice. Site last visited on 26th December 2018.
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