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Santa Maria della Salute

Santa Maria della Salute (42)

Just as had occurred at the end of a great epidemic in 1576, when in 1630 the city of Venice pulled through a terrible plague, the Senate of the Republic decided to build a large church to commemorate the event.

The place chosen was the end of the Grand Canal, close to the San Marco Canal. Given that the church was built to celebrate the victory over the terrible disease, it was decided to give it a very meaningful name, since salute, in Italian, means “health” or “salvation”. As occurs in the festival of the Redeemer in July, on the 21st of November a bridge is formed made up of boats crossing the Grand Canal as far as Santa Maria della Salute. On this occasion the festival is seasoned with some delicious fritters.

After considering several projects for the design of the church, the heads opted for the revolutionary proposal of the architect Baldassare Longhena, who was aged 32 at the time. When the first stone was laid, on the 1st of April 1631, Longhena could never have expected that this sanctuary would be a project that would last all his life. In fact, the works were completed by Antonio Gaspari in 1697, five years after Longhena’s death.

Changing the plan that the Baroque architects had followed until then, the architect fused concepts of Byzantine architecture with the lessons learnt from the monumental temples built in the city by Andrea Palladio, with which the result was spectacular.

Santa Maria della Salute, whose elegant profile, crowned by two bell towers and two beautiful cupolas, dominates the environs with authority, and features the exquisite contrast between the sober interior and the overelaborate exterior, covered with Istrian stone. One of the most curious elements are the volutes called orecchioni, that is, “big-ears”, which are formed at the ends of the buttresses that support the largest cupola.

Of octagonal ground plan, the main façade is, without doubt, one of its major attractions. Of classical lines, which speak to us of the admiration their author felt for the mastery of Palladio, the large columns and colossal stairway tells us we are before one of the city’s grand monuments. The ornamentation of the distinct façades features the profusion of statues, of which there are more than one hundred.

What will attract your attention from interior, made up of an octagonal space below the cupola and by six chapels that project from the ambulatory, is undoubtedly the main altar, decorated with sculptural pieces by Josse Le Court. These figures, in consonance with the reason behind the construction of Santa Maria della Salute, represent the Virgin and Child protecting Venice from the plague. 

You may be interested to know that, as well as being able to see sculptures by authors such as Bartolomeo Bon, Tullio Lombardo and Gianmaria Morlaiter, some of the authors of the abundant pictorial work decorating the church are Palma the Younger, Luca Giordano and Tintoretto. What really is a shame for the visitor is that some of the more sublime decorative examples, such as the series of frescos painted by Titian that represent the biblical themes of Cain and Abel, the Sacrifice of Abraham and Isaac and David and Goliath, are in the areas limited top the public. 

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