22 November 2007

Festa della Salute, November 21

Every November 21st since 2003 I have been aware of missing this special Venetian holiday, Festa della Santa Maria della Salute, honoring the Virgin Mary for Venice’s deliverance from a devastating two-year plague, 1630-31.

The site of festivities is an imposing church – built to express Venetian gratitude and now referred to simply as Salute (“good health”) – at the Bacino entrance to the Grand Canal. Every year the Venetians construct a bridge resting on boats from San Marco to Salute, to permit the people to make their pilgrimage across the water and offer their thanks.

I waited a long time to witness this. I have wanted to cross with them in the darkness, see them light their candles in the church, be a part of their lovely tradition…

The reality wasn’t exactly the way I pictured it.

To begin with, the bridge was not what I expected, as I had only seen photos of bridges built years ago – wooden planks lain over many small boat hulls, causing the faithful to walk carefully and very close to the water. Today’s bridge is a high, wide, well-constructed affair, fully braced and secured to several large pontoon boats and fitted with traffic signals on both sides to keep the vaporetti passing through on their routes. Safe and efficient. Not quite the quaint effect I had in mind.

The pilgrimage was indistinguishable from the foot traffic on any of the three permanent bridges over the Canal. The church itself, always beautiful, was a thrill to behold in the light of hundreds and hundreds of candles. But the real action took place outside, and it seemed to be primarily sugar-driven.

Behind the church there was a street festival that featured almost twenty stands offering every conceivable Italian dessert and cookie and candy. Adults and children alike had a heyday choosing their favorites. Neighbors and friends greeted one another with sticky smiles and powdered sugar kisses. There was more than enough laughter and camaraderie to keep all of us healthy for another year.

So, here's what I learned tonight. It’s possible for me to over-romanticize Venice and her traditions, but impossible to be disappointed by her.