This weekend (July 19 and 20) is the Festa del Redentore (Feast of the Redeemer) in Venice, a celebration of thanksgiving for the end of a 16th century Black Plague epidemic. It’s one of Venice’s most popular holidays complete with fireworks, a temporary pontoon bridge from the Zattere to the church of the Redentore on Guidecca island, feasting and celebration on boats in the lagoon, and a high holy Mass with the Patriarch of Venice at the church.
Venice was hit by numerous plague outbreaks over the centuries, some more horrifying than others, and the one in 1575-77 was particularly bad, killing a third of the population (over 50,000 people including Titian). John Julius Norwich (The History of Venice) describes Venice as an eerie ghost town during this time, since anyone who could had fled the city, no businesses were open, and people were dying right and left. Imagine all the funerals (maybe the plague is one of the reasons that Venice has so many churches?).
So in September 1576, the Doge announced that the Republic intended to build a church dedicated to Christ the Redeemer to give thanks for deliverance from this plague. Now the plague wasn’t over when they made this vow – in a way, the government was using Field of Dreams “build it and they will come” positive thinking, along the lines of “if we thank you now, you’ll make it go away.”
A government negotiating with the Higher Power is so fascinating to me, having been raised on the whole “separation of church and state” thing. It would be like George Bush (sorry, bad example but he’s what we’ve got now) going on TV tonight to announce that we are going to build a great cathedral to celebrate the end of global warming. Hey, maybe it’s not such a bad idea!
Anyway, plans were set in motion to build this magnificent votive temple and the greatest architect of the time (Andrea Palladio) was hired. Palladio wanted to build a round church, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, but the fact that the Pantheon was originally a pagan temple (and round churches were just too modern) was too much, so the Senate nixed this and selected his other plan, a Latin Cross design that does look a bit round from a distance because of that enormous dome.
The Venetians vowed to visit the Redentore each year on the third Sunday in July in a grand ceremonial procession with lots of pomp and circumstance. This date commemorates the official end of this plague in July 1577. They selected a site on Guidecca where a Capuchin monastery and church (Santa Maria degli Angeli) stood. The Capuchins agreed to this plan but asked that their new church never be used for burials, which was smart on their part since it saved this church from being junked up with a bunch of Baroque funeral monuments.
The Redentore was built for dramatic impact of the view across the Guidecca Canal. It has fifteen steps (the same number of steps as the Temple in Jerusalem), and it took 12 years to build. Palladio did not live to see it finished and architect Antonio Da Ponte, who also designed the Rialto Bridge, finished the job to Palladio’s design, and the church was consecrated in 1592 and dedicated to Santissimo Redentore.
I’m not madly in love with the inside of this church. It’s impressive and beautiful and all, but I like my churches a bit more cluttered and colorful. This one is very white and bright but somehow feels empty to me. There are a few nice paintings - Veronese’s Baptism of Christ, and Alvise Vivarini’s Virgin and Child with Two Musical Angels are two of the best. When John Ruskin wrote about this church in the 19th century (he hated it, of course, and called it "small and contemptible, on a surburban island"), he said that it had three Bellinis and at that time, everyone thought it did. But modern art scholars have decided that these three paintings are by students of the Master, not by Bellini himself, and one of them is the Vivarini.
But there is something that I still want to see at this church. My friend Susan told me about all these bizarre wax heads they have in a back room. She and her husband George saw these things when they were on an Elderhostel art tour of Venice.
Here’s what Susan wrote:
“What I remember about the wax heads is not much, but I have checked both of our journals: We went to the Redentore early, and there was a tour guide waiting on the steps for his group. He suggested that we go inside and ask the sacristan to show us the sacristy. The man was a Franciscan friar from his appearance - long brown coarsely spun robe cinched with rope at the waist and a tonsure, I think. He took us to a room at the back to the right to show us the relics. When the door opened, there were all these wax heads under glass bell jars. It was a little frightening because they looked so real; it was like wandering into a Victorian serial killer's private collection. They were heads of previous abbots or whatever the head of the monastery was called. Heads of the heads.”
I checked in one of my books, and these wax heads are Capuchin saints. When I visited, the priest and sacristan were meeting with an Italian family, planning a wedding I think, and I couldn’t ask about seeing the heads, so I need to go back to see these things!
To Visit This Church
A Chorus Pass church, so it’s open Monday - Saturday from 10-5.
Take the vaporetto (line 82) from the San Zaccaria stop.
A view of the Ponte Votivo (the temporary bridge) -
There’s lots of information on the web about this church and the Festa:
* Another nice photo of the Ponte Votivo and a great eyewitness description of the Festa by someone who attended it last summer. This blog was written by an American woman who moved to Venice for a year (along with her 17-year old cat!) and she chronicles the whole experience here; it’s a great read.
* Venice’s official website has some photos of the fireworks and a description of the celebration, plus a great quote from Mark Twain who was in Venice for the Festa del Redentore in 1867.
“The whole of Venice met outside, on the water... covering a vast expanse... thousands of gondolas had gathered together, each with ten, twenty, or even thirty coloured lights hanging all over them... As far as the eye could see these multi-coloured lights were amassed like a huge garden of multi-coloured flowers... there was music everywhere. Thus enveloped by music, magnificence and beauty I felt so inspired by the atmosphere and sights, that even I burst into song...”
20 July 1867
M. Twain, A Tramp Abroad
* Palladio 500: various events celebrating the five hundredth anniversary of his birth in 1508.
* There are some nice photos of the church interior on Mary Ann Sullivan’s Art Historical Sites digital imaging project.
Both of the paintings above are by Canaletto.