21 July 2008

Festa del Redentore

This weekend all of Venice celebrated Festa del Redentore, the high point of the Venetian summer. It’s a festive occasion, but also one of great gratitude. Redentore means “redeemer.” In the context of the holiday, it refers to the Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore, designed by Palladio in 1577 and completed on Giudecca Island in 1592 as a pledge in exchange for deliverance from a plague that had killed 50,000 Venetians.

On this holiday tradition calls for building a bridge atop a string of boats for the pilgrimage to Redentore. Originally planks were laid across a row of 80 seagoing galleys. Nowadays the sectioned bridge is supported by pontoons, like the one built for the Festa della Salute (see November post), but much longer because it stretches across the vast Giudecca Canal from the Zattere to the church. For several summers I have wished to be a part of this celebration, to cross the bridge, and to see the lavish fireworks display over the waters on the eve of the holiday. Finally the time came…

Saturday evening, under a big, orange moon, the Bacino sparkled like a Christmas tree, spangled with the colored lights of hundreds of boats great and small. Both banks of the Giudecca Canal were festooned with strings of yellow lanterns. The crowd onshore began gathering well before sunset, but we all had to wait until almost midnight for the fireworks display. It certainly did not disappoint! Venice spared no expense for a spectacle that rivaled any I’ve ever seen in the U.S. Amid the booms and whistles, the Marangona tolled from the campanile in the Piazza. Dazzling!

Yesterday afternoon I made my pilgrimage to Redentore. At first I was refused access to the bridge – everybody was – because its engineers had detected some structural damage. But later we got the “thumbs up” and I set out for Giudecca. Spirits were high. Boats of every description crowded the waters on both sides, many chasing the regatta contenders and then looping back to pick up friends and picnic needs.

What great fun it was to cross the slightly-rocking bridge with the others, to stand where it’s impossible to be on any other day of the year. On the other side the serene, elegant Redentore stood in contrast to the festive atmosphere on the fondamenta. There were candy and balloon vendors doing brisk business. And there was a “pesca” – a drawing to benefit the church, but one in which every ticket purchased wins one of the prizes, which are mostly “white elephants” donated for the cause. (One grandmother took home a sand pail & shovel set; her grandson won a nice lampshade. I suspect they made a swap later.)

I had to go back after dark, to walk the bridge once more when it was near-deserted and its lamps were casting sharp little shards of light on the choppy waters. Halfway back, a burst of rain and a few glaring forks of lightning made a dramatic ending to my first Redentore celebration.

[Note to self: Next year find a date who has a boat, or at least access to a party on one. I hear all the boats head over to Lido after the fireworks, to wait for sunrise…]