The church of Santa Maria della Salute was open for extended hours during the Festa culminating in the grand celebration on November 21 which fell on a Sunday this year. On Sunday, the church opened at 5:50 am and remained open until 10 that night, with hourly masses throughout the day starting at 6 am.
I went to Mass at La Salute for the first time on Saturday night, and the place was packed…grandmas, families, lots of kids, and even a few dogs (I loved seeing that). Outside the church, little kiosks were selling long white candles and people brought them into the church to light.
As Andrew commented on my last post, there is absolutely nothing touristy about this festival. Even so, I felt completely comfortable being there, tourist that I am. The Mass felt very different from the Feast of the Immaculate Conception masses that I’ve attended in San Marco, which were solemn and mysterious. This seemed more of a celebration and social event, it felt holy but also friendly. A happy gathering.
Once you are inside the church, forget the Titians and the Tintorettos. All eyes are on the icon of the Black Madonna on the high altar and that’s where Mass happens. This icon is one of three in Venice that were supposedly painted by St Luke and it’s touching to see how revered she is. More about her later.
In between the hourly masses, you can follow the crowd behind the high altar where these beautiful wooden choir stalls are (a part of the church I’d never seen before). There’s another smaller altar back there with a mosaic Madonna; people stopped in front of her to pray and then threw money into a basket on the floor. This procession continued into the Sacristy where the church’s best paintings are; tables were full of prayer cards, framed prints, and huge posters of the Black Madonna that were for sale. Then we moved into the Seminary, the building next door to the church that houses a collection of art from Venice’s many closed and demolished churches. This place is never open (and is under-going renovation); there was lots of scaffolding but I saw enough to know that I can’t wait to go back when they finish restoring it. It’s supposed to be completed next May, and the grand opening will coincide with the Pope’s visit to Venice on May 7-8, 2011.
So then I walked down to the Zattere and was surprised to see this huge procession happening down there. Later learned that this is another part of the tradition: il pellegrinaggio dei giovani (the procession of youth). There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of young people walking down the Zattere, singing and carrying candles. It was beautiful.
I didn’t go to the main Mass on Sunday morning at 10 am but went back to La Salute that afternoon. Sunday was the one day of bad weather while I was in Venice…torrential rain and wind, and because of this, I didn’t stroll around too much outside where all the kiosks selling pastries, toys and balloons were. The vaporettos were packed that whole day, and it was fun to see all the little kids bringing these huge and colorful SpongeBob and Spiderman balloons onto the very crowded boats. I’d love to go back to this Festa on a nice day. But this particular day was an umbrella killer, as you can see in the pic below. Mine survived but it was new; I left a dead umbrella in Venice the last time I was there. :)
My favorite description of the Festa is from Jan Morris in “The World of Venice”:
I was once in Venice on the day of the Festival of the Salute, in November, when the Venetians, to celebrate the ending of a seventeenth-century plague, erect a temporary bridge across the Grand Canal and process to the great church of Santa Maria della Salute. In the evening I posted myself at the end of the bridge, a rickety structure of barges and timber…there, turning up my collar against the bitter sea wind, I watched the Venetians walking to evening Mass, in twos or threes or youth groups, cozily wrapped.
There was a curiously proprietorial feeling to their progress: and as each little group of people turned the corner to the bridge, and saw the light of the quay before them, and the huge dome of the Salute floodlit in the dusk, “Ah!” they said, clicking their tongues with affection, “how beautiful she looks tonight!” – for all the world as though some frail but favourite aunt were wearing her best lacy bed-jacket for visitors.