The plague of plagues. That’s how people called the plague epidemic that struck Europe and the major Italian cities in 1630. And which was so dire that it earned itself a place in Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, set in Milan. But the plague in 1630 didn’t spare Venice, either. As a consequence, the patriarch, Giovanni Tiepolo, vowed to build a church to Our Lady and to celebrate the end of the epidemic every year. And now the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute (“Saint Mary of Health”) stands as a token of that vow.
The history of the Basilica della Salute
They say that, in Venice, plague was brought by an ambassador of the Duke of Mantua. Venetians, though, knew the symptoms of this disease extremely well, so they immediately isolated the ambassador on the Lazzaretto Vecchio island (the “old leper hospital”). But, by then, the contagion had already begun.
In 1631, when the epidemic came to an end, the toll of dead was terrible: just in venice, plague had claimed 47000 victims. Among which the Doge, Nicolò Contarini and Giovanni Tiepolo himself. Who therefore could not see his vow fulfilled. Venetians, though, did see it, and began celebrating the end of plague already on November 21st, 1681, that is 6 years before the basilica was finished. The church was commissioned to Baldassare Longhena in 1631, who built it at the end of the Grand Canal, a few metres away from Punta della Dogana. Where you can now admire this snow-white masterpiece of the Venetian Baroque.
The symbols of Santa Maria della Salute
According to Longhena’s project – chosen from among 11 other drafts – the basilica had to be a “round machine as never seen before”. And Santa Maria della Salute actually is round, thanks to its octagonal plan. Which hides a symbolic meaning: indeed, it’s baptisteries that have 8-sided plans, so the basilica represents the faith that saved Venice.
But this church hides other symbols, as well:
- at the top of the building, the statue of Mary Immaculate is surrounded by 8 obelisks which, thanks to the round plan, turn the basilica into a crown, thus representing Mary’s triumph;
- the statue of the Immaculate holds the admiral of the fleet’s baton in her hand and wears the same clothes as a capitana da mar, a “sea she-captain”: together with the volutes, standing for waves, the statue symbolises Venice, too, the lady of the seas;
- the statues on the tympana and volutes depict Mary’s virtues;
- the entrance can be reached after 15 steps, the same number as in Solomon’s temple;
- inside the church, Giusto Le Court sculpted the Plague as a toothless old woman: this is where the Venetian saying Ti xè bruta come ea peste!, “You’re as ugly as the plague”, comes from.
If you want to find out more on the plague in venice, our “Plague and Soul” route is what you’re looking for.