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Festa della Madonna della Salute (Festival of the Madonna of Health)By Anthony Parente
The Festa della Madonna della Salute (the Festival of the Madonna of Health) is an annual celebration that takes place on November 21st. The origins of this festa actually goes back to the 17th century. The Italian Plague of 1629–1631, more commonly known as the Great Plague of Milan, was sweeping through central and northern Italy devastating cities and villages. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives to this terrible disease. In the city of Venice, a third of the population nearly 50,000 had succumb to this outbreak and the medicines they had at the time did nothing to help the people infected. There seemed to be no end in sight. The people of Venice organized a procession around the Piazza San Marco with lit torches praying to the Madonna for help. Within a week the number of cases started to decline and finally the plague had ended. To thank the Madonna, it was decided that a church would be built in her name.
The Senate held a competition seeking designs for the new church. A number of architects submitted their designs. The decision was made to go with the young architect Baldassare Longhena. A number of locations were looked over as the Senate searched for the ideal area for the new church. It was finally decided that it would be located at the tip of the Punta della Dogana between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal at the San Marco basin. Construction of the Baroque style basilica began in 1631 and was completed in 1686. It was consecrated on November 21st, 1687. The octagonal building consists of two domes and two bell towers. Sitting on top of the larger dome is a statue of the Virgin Mary to protect and watch over the city.
On November 21st Venetians make their way from St. Mark's and walk on a specially constructed pontoon bridge that spans over the canal to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Candles are lit in the church to give thanks to the Virgin Mary and to pray for good health. Near the Basilica you will find a number of vendors selling chestnuts, sweets and goods. It is also customary to eat a special soup known as Castradina, which is made from cabbage, seasoned mutton and other spices.
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