Friday, 28 June 2013

Preview: Santa Maria della Salute

Welcome to the saviour of Venice.

Ok, not actually, but in the 17th Century, seemingly so. This is the Santa Maria della Salute of Venice, literally Saint Mary of Health, built in a time of need. Venice and Italy during the 17th Century - and for centuries before - suffered from sudden and devastating attacks of plague. In fact, devastating hardly begins to describe it - over half the population could be wiped out sometimes. The Black Death in the mid-14th Century is the clearly famous example, ravaging Europe in ways that made war and genocide seem like side issues: something like 100 million people killed, or half of Europe at the time. But Black Death is just the famous one. Related plagues came again and again, striking towns and cities and nation relentlessly. One day you'd wake with a fever, large pustules would form and then bleed, you might vomit blood; within a few days you'd be dead.

These days we pretty much know the reason - poor sanitation, which attracted black rats with fleas, and these fleas had bacteria called Yersinia pestis. This was not the kind of bacteria you'd want to take home and meet your parents. The rats and fleas were the carriers of disease, but ultimately it boiled down to dirty and congested towns where the closest thing to hygiene was chucking your turd in a river. 

So, put yourself in the mind of a young Venetian in 1576. In 1576, plague killed 40-70,000 people, about a third of the population. That's a third of your family and friends dead all of a sudden. The streets are empty and the shops are closed because the owners and their families are all dead or hiding from it. The canals are filled with barges which are filled with diseased and decaying corpses that can't be buried on the lagoon islands quick enough. Everything stinks of death. And at any moment the nausea of horror in your stomach could turn out to be the plague about to turn you inside out too. But you survive. Then, in 1629, it happens again. Again, a third of the population dies. The bodies pile up and there seems to be no end. There also seems to be no answer. Why is this happening? Without any knowledge of germs or bacteria or disease transmission, it surely had to be a punishment from God. Against a backdrop of perceived decline in morals and standards, God had again delivered a mysterious, devastating pestilence. God was the cause, and God was the answer. And an offering to God was required, to beg for deliverance from his wrath.

It is in these desperate times that the Santa Maria della Salute was conceived. As 1629 turned to 1630, and nobody knew if they would be next on the cartload of corpses, the people and the Church decided a new church was needed. The plague faded away, as ever, and the church became a votive offering (kind of like a vow) by the survivors to give thanks to God for saving them, presumably with the pleading tone of "Please, please, don't do it again, we promise to be good." A design competition was set by the Venetian Senate, with 11 proposals submitted. By 1631, the design by a man called Baldassaro Longhena was chosen.

Intense and with a predilection for wearing black - a Renaissance Goth if you like - Longhena was anything between 27 and 35 years old when he was chosen, depending on what source you believe. He was already a known and respected architect, having designed the cathedral at the nearby town of Choggia, and was local, and Venice preferred to use local artists. Entirely single-minded and devoted to his architecture, it was all he thought or cared about. Those who knew him got quickly used to being abruptly interrupted during conversation while he sketched a design that had just occurred. He might not have made a brilliant dinner companion, but he made a brilliant architect, and was the right man for the job.

And the job was not easy. Venice is not a big city, and being on a lagoon island is not exactly blessed with an abundance of free space. Additionally, the Venetian Senate had some very precise requirements. The commissioned church had to be built to very exact financial, structural, and aesthetic guidelines. It had to harmonise with its surroundings - but also stand out and make a brilliant impression. Inside, it had to be open and bright, with equal light distribution, and a simple, easily understood layout. Naturally, it all had to be beautiful - but not cost too much either. "I'm on it," Longhena said.

It was not an auspicious start. The foundation stone was due to be laid on March 25th, 1631, but due to bad weather and the illness of the Doge, it had to be postponed till April 1st. The Doge of Venice was kind of like the mayor, and he was still too sick to attend the rescheduled ceremony, and promptly died the next day. Hardly a great omen. At least it seems to have been through general old age, and not plague related.

It took another 56 years until it was finished in 1687, and the Salute, as it's popularly called, has been an important fixture of Venice ever since. Longhena didn't survive long enough to see it formally completed, but he did live to its 1681 consecration, i.e. opened and fit for purpose. He also oversaw the construction of numerous other significant Venetian buildings, such as the Procuratie Nuove in St Mark's Square, the monastery of San Giorgio, Ca’ Rezzonico, and the Palazzo Pesaro. The Venice was know today has Longhena's influence all around. But the Salute was his masterpiece, creating a grand entrance to the Grand Canal. It's not huge, at only 66 metres long, but the large dome built from white limestone from Istria, in modern day Croatia, is a major addition to the city's skyline. Longhena built within his imposed restrictions to create an octagonal building in the Baroque style, picturesque and ornate. Inside, is cool and restrained, kept mostly simple in stone and white plaster. The art within mostly relates to plague and the Black Death; although a church, this was also an promise to God, and a place to always remind of that promise. Even today, each year on November 21st, there is an annual procession from St Mark's Basilica to the Salute, in gratitude of being delivered from the plague. Does it work? Well, certainly, since 1630 there has been no further outbreaks of plague in Venice. Whatever the reasons, it's certainly the outcome the population of Venice was hoping for.


The Santa Maria della Salute might be seen as a slightly obscure choice for my list of Wonders. Though a well known landmark within Venice, it doesn't seem to have a high profile otherwise. Venice itself has been suggested as a Wonder, and I considered it, but feel it's too diverse to consider a single entity. My entry The Bagan Question gives more details as to what I consider to be required attributes of a Wonder; the result is that, just as New York isn't a Wonder but can contain Wonders, Venice too is a city that can contain multiple Wonders but can't be considered one itself. St Mark's Basilica, perhaps incorporating St Mark's Square, would be the obvious focus and as such is also on my list, but browsing pictures of the sights of Venice I felt that the Salute had a visual appeal that made it worth a closer look. Broken down into numbers, it might not be as massive as many buildings out there, but it has a grandeur and impression of size - at least in photos - which is equally, if not more, important than mere numbers. At the same time, I can't see it being anything but a very outside candidate. I expect it to be a very pretty church, perhaps not far removed from the Sacre-Coeur in impact, but given the magnificence of so much ecclesiastical European architecture, it's up against it. The Santa Maria della Salute versus St Peter's Basilica or Cologne Cathedral is a little like pitting a Scottie dog against a Great Dane or a fearsome Perro de Presa Canario.

But one of the joys of these travels is about sometimes being wrong. Reading about buildings and looking at pictures can only do so much - there is no substitute to visiting. Perhaps the Scottie can take down both its larger brethren. I'll visit next spring and find out. And will give, of course, a fuller account of the Santa Maria della Salute and its history, as well as my own impressions, then.

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful article. Really interesting your analysis on how/why Venetians saw the need of a vow for protecting the city against the Black Death.


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