At the entrance to the Grand Canal, with a perfect sense of theatrical timing and spacing (in the City of Water, the two begin to merge) stands this magical white pavilion erected in honour of St Mary of Health.
The plague of 1630–31 was the most heinous since the Black Death of 1348, taking some 95,000 people (nearly one in three Venetians) to early graves. In October of 1630 the Senate offered the Virgin Mary a church if she would intervene and spare the city. Mary delivered, and the Senate did too, choosing in a competition the design of the 26-year-old Baldassare Longhena, who would just live to see his life’s masterpiece completed in 1682.
The ideal of a centralized domed temple was a favourite of the Renaissance, but Longhena was the first architect since the early Middle Ages to centralize his temple in the form of an octagon surrounded by an ambulatory. This unique shape is made obvious from the exterior, marked by the smaller Palladian-style façades of the chapels and the wonderful scrolls, tightly spun party streamers ready to shoot off across all Venice; without their festive touch the exterior of the Salute would be almost severe.
The main door, framed by a triumphal arch, is only open on the Salute’s Feast Day, 21 November, when a pontoon bridge is laid across the Grand Canal from Campo Santa Maria del Giglio for a grand procession led by the Patriarch, starting in St Mark's. It's a fine sight, especially as you can see into the interior of the church as Longhena intended, the eye drawn in through a series of receding arches.
Stand in the centre of the octagon and this same play of arches makes the seven chapels and high altar seem even deeper than they really are (the inscription here: Unde Origo, Inde Salus – ‘From the origins comes Salvation’ – refers to the official date of Venice’s founding, 25 March 425, which coincides with the Feast Day of Mary).
One of the many debts Longhena owed the Renaissance tradition and his immediate mentor Palladio was the white and grey colour scheme of the interior, though Longhena is far more manipulative, using the grey not to outline the structure, but as an optical device.
The sanctuary, reached by steps, is almost separate from the main body, and owes much to Palladio’s Redentore. A great arch, supported by four ancient Roman columns from Pola, spans the high altar, with its large remarkable sculptural group of The Queen of Heaven Expelling the Plague, designed by Longhena and sculpted by Juste Le Court (1670). Venice kneels as a suppliant before the Virgin in the clouds, whose look of disdain is enough to send the horrid old hag of plague on her way, while St Mark and St Lorenzo Giustiniani look on.
In the centre is a 13th-century Byzantine Madonna and Child, picked up by the light-fingered Francesco Morosini in Crete. This piece of Baroque theatre is made more effective by the shadowy rectangular choir behind the altar, visually united to the rest of the composition by its tier of three more arches.
In this church Longhena provided 17th-century Italy with a stimulating if insubstantial alternative to the Baroque masters of Rome, and its influence was felt throughout the peninsula, though surprisingly, the octagon never caught on.
The art in the chapels fails to match the architectural confection that surrounds them (the three on the right are by the over-talented Neapolitan Luca ‘fa presto’ (do it quickly) Giordano, and the third altar on the left is by Titian) but there are some treasures in the sacristy, to the left of the high altar, where the authorities brought Titian’s paintings from the suppressed monastery on the island of Santo Spirito: over the altar, an early work, St Mark Enthroned between SS. Rocco and Sebastiano and SS. Cosma and Damian (the surgeon saints), a votive for the liberation of a previous plague; and on the ceiling, three restored canvases of Old Testament scenes in violent perspective: Cain and Abel, David and Goliath and Abraham and Isaac, all from the 1540s. Titian also painted the eight tondi of the Doctors of the Church.
Next to the altar is Padovanino’s Madonna with Angels and a model of the Salute; the Marriage at Cana is a 1561 work by Tintoretto. The Salute is one of Venice’s marvels, built under genuinely pious auspices. Yet, less than a hundred years after its completion, a notice appeared near the entrance: ‘In honour of God and His Holy Nature, please do not spit on the floor!’ And if the celebrant of mass were good-looking, another note would be attached, expressing the hope that the parishioners would limit their contributions in the collection baskets to money and not love letters.
Hours Open daily 9am–12 and 3pm–5.30pm
Adm €3 or €1.50 reductions
Campo della Salute
+39 041 241 1018
Images by: Arian Zwegers, Sébastien Bertrand, PD Art