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Beginning in the summer of 1630, a wave of the plague assaulted Venice, and until 1631 killed nearly a third of the population. In the city, 46,000 people died whilst in the lagoons the number was far higher, some 94,000. Repeated displays of the sacrament, as well as prayers and processions to churches dedicated to San Rocco and San Lorenzo Giustiniani had failed to stem the epidemic. Echoing the architectural response to a prior assault of the plague (1575–76), when Palladio was asked to design the Redentore church, the Venetian Senate on October 22, 1630, decreed that a new church would be built. It was not to be dedicated to a mere “plague” or patron saint, but to the Virgin Mary, who for many reasons was thought to be a protector of the Republic.
Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal
It was also decided that the Senate would visit the church each year. On November 21 the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin, known as the Festa della Madonna della Salute, the city’s officials parade from San Marco to the Salute for a service in gratitude for deliverance from the plague is celebrated. This involved crossing the Grand Canal on a specially constructed pontoon bridge and is still a major event in Venice.
The desire to create a suitable monument at a place that allows for easy processional access from Piazza San Marco led senators to select the present site from among eight potential locations. The location was chosen partially due to its relationship to San Giorgio, San Marco, and Il Redentore, with which it forms an arc. The Salute, emblematic of the city’s piety, stands adjacent to the rusticated single story customs house or Dogana da Mar, the emblem of its maritime commerce, and near the civic center of the city. A dispute with the patriarch, owner of the church and seminary at the site, was resolved, and razing of some of the buildings began by 1631. Likely, the diplomat Paolo Sarpi and Doge Nicolo Contarini shared the intent to link the church to an order less closely associated with the patriarchate, and ultimately the Somascan Fathers, an order founded near Bergamo by a Venetian nobleman Jerome Emiliani, were invited to administer the church.
High Altar with the holy icon of Panagia Mesopantitisa
A competition was held to design the building. Of the eleven submissions (including designs by Alessandro Varotari, Matteo Ignoli, and Berteo Belli), only two were chosen for the final round. The architect Baldassare Longhena was selected to design the new church. It was finally completed in 1681 the year before Longhena’s death. The other design to make it to the final round was by Antonio Smeraldi (il Fracao) and Zambattista Rubertini. Of the proposals still extant, Belli’s and Smeraldi’s original plans were conventional counter-reformation linear churches, resembling Palladio’s Redentore and San Giorgio Maggiore, while Varotari’s was a sketchy geometrical abstraction. Longhena’s proposal was a concrete architectural plan, detailing the structure and costs. He wrote:
I have created a church in the form of a rotunda, a work of new invention, not built in Venice, a work very worthy and desired by many. This church, having the mystery of its dedication, being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, made me think, with what little talent God has bestowed upon me of building the church in the … shape of a crown.
Later in a memorandum, he wrote: “Firstly, it is a virgin work, never before seen, curious, worthy and beautiful, made in the form of a round monument that has never been seen, nor ever before invented, neither altogether, nor in part, in other churches in this most serene city, just as my competitor (il Fracao) has done for his own advantage, being poor in invention.”
The Salute, while novel in many ways, still shows the influence of Palladian classicism and the domes of Venice. The Venetian Senate voted 66 in favor, 29 against with 2 abstentions to authorize the designs of the 26 year old Longhena. While Longhena saw the structure as crown-like, the decorative circular building makes it seem more like a reliquary, a ciborium, and embroidered inverted chalice that shelters the city’s piety. (Wikipedia)
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