The votive church of Santa Maria della Salute is familiar to anyone who has visited Venice. Visible from the Piazza S. Marco, clad in shimmering white Istrian stone, the church dazzles the eye — in sun or in rain, S. Maria della Salute shimmers, opalescent, lit from above and below.
The church was an ex voto offering from the Commune of Venice to the Virgin Mary: intercede on behalf of Venice, end the plague, and the city would build a glorious new church in her name.
The plague arrived in Venice in 1629—part of a wave that struck western Europe in the 1620s. In an article on the impact of the plague on seventeenth-century Europe, Giorgio Alfani described the movement of the plague across the continent: “The most severe [wave of plague] began on the shores of northern France, in the Netherlands, and in Renania around 1623, struck England in 1625, and in 1625–1626 infected central Germany. In the following years, it moved southwards, through southern Germany and eastern France. In 1628–1629, it was covering the area between the Pyrenees and southern France on one side, Bavaria and Switzerland on the other. In late 1629, it entered Italy, ravaging it in 1630. From Lombardy, under Spanish rule, the plague spread to Catalonia.”
When French and Habsburg troops arrived in northern Italy in 1629, to take part in what would come to be known as the War of the Mantuan Succession (1628-1631), they brought the plague with them. Vicenzo II, the last of the direct line of Gonzaga dukes, died without heirs in 1627. His death set off an intricate series of power struggles between various players, large and small–from the Habsburgs and the Bourbons to the Savoys, the Gonzaga, and even the Venetians.1 As the war dragged on, plague spread across northern Italy, devastating small mountain villages and large cities alike. By the summer of 1630, the plague was already in Venice, Bologna, and Florence. Curiously, it went no farther south than Tuscany.
It is unclear how, exactly, the plague arrived in Venice. One hypothesis holds that Alessandro Striggio the Younger—Mantuan nobleman, musician, poet/librettist, diplomat, and longtime friend of Claudio Monteverdi—brought the plague to Venice himself. Striggio was already ill when he arrived in Venice on a diplomatic mission seeking the Doge’s aid against the Habsburgs.2 He would die in Venice on June 8, 1630.
Despite the best efforts of Venetian authorities, the plague of 1629-1630 would go on to claim 46,500 lives (or perhaps 51,903, the records differ), at a time when Venice’s population numbered roughly 141,000.sup>3 In other words, almost a third of Venice perished in a single year. Venice suffered terribly, but other Italian cities lost more lives — 46% of Milan’s population perished in the plague of 1629-1630, and 61% of Parma and Verona also died in the same wave of plague.
The story of S. Maria della Salute is almost always framed this way: Faced with unbearable suffering and misery, with no obvious solutions to stem the tide of death and disease, and no end in sight, the Doge and the Venetian Senate turned to miracles. As Andrew Hopkins retells the story, the plague arrived in Venice in early 1629: “It lasted through the summer and showed no immediate signs of waning. The patriarch, Giovanni Tiepolo, ordered the display of the sacrament from September 23 to 29 in the cathedral of Venice, S. Pietro di Castello. On April 26, 1630, the patriarch again ordered the display of the sacrament, for a further 12 days beginning on April 28, to be held successively in six Venetian churches dedicated to the Virgin: S. Maria Maggiore, S. Maria del Giglio, S. Maria Formosa, S. Maria dei Miracoli, S. Maria Annunziata (S. Lucia), and S. Maria della Celestia. […] Following the patriarch’s recourse to Mary, on October 22, the Senate decided to commision a new church, to be called S. Maria della Salute. It was dedicated to the Virgin with the hope that she would intercede and save Venice from the plague, just as Christ had been invoked at the church of the Redentore, which was commissioned during the 1575-76 pestilence.”
Mary, star of the sea, had special significance for the Venetian republic. According to legend, Venice was founded on March 25th, the Feast of the Annunciation. Venice’s celebration of its yearly renewal of its marriage to the sea also included Marian elements. Venice, so went the myth, was the Virgin’s favorite. It was only natural that, in a time of crisis, Venice, long favored by the Virgin, would once again turn to Mary.
Venetian plague deaths surged in October, 1630. Over the course of three days in October (from the 23rd to the 25th), Venetian authorities recorded 1,163 plague deaths. As the story goes, the Senate promised, on October 22, 1630, to build Mary a church in her honor. In their plea, the Senate invoked the memory of the favor that the Republic received in 1576. Battered by the plague, Venice offered, ex voto, the church of Il Redentore. The city was rewarded for its piety and faith. The plague ended in 1577. They hoped to find the same favor again in 1630.
In 1630, Venice did not rely on faith alone. It deployed the full force of the Magistrata della Sanità to combat the plague. The institutions and practices employed by the seventeenth-century Venetian state were built upon foundations established in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. And the Venetian public health system–if we may call it that–was not unique. According to John Henderson, most seventeenth-century Italian states employed a similar set of public health measures: health boards that could oversee and coordinate measures to control and contain epidemics, health passes to regulate the movement of people and goods, cordons sanitaires between cities and states, lazaretti or isolation hospitals for the housing and treatment of plague victims, and a policy of burying plague victims outside of the city walls.
Yet, the ferocity of the plague demanded something more. In addition to commissioning the new church of S. Maria della Salute, the Venetian Senate also vowed to visit the Church annually, staging a grand procession from S. Marco to S. Maria della Salute as an expression of thanksgiving. Meanwhile, every Saturday, according to Hopkins, “for a whole year until the plague had officially ended,” a procession—including the Doge and “other important members of the government”–circumambulated the Piazza S. Marco carrying the Madonna Nikopeia.4
Things moved quickly after the Senate made its vow. On November 23, 1630, the Senate chose a site for the new church. In December of 1630, the Venetian government announced an open competition for the design. The winner of the competition would turn out to be Baldassare Longhena, a native Venetian who had trained as a stonemason under his father, Melchisedech, and studied architecture under Vicenzo Scamozzi. He was capable of supervising both the construction and the design aspects of this complicated project. The project would occupy Longhena for the rest of his life. He would not live to see the church’s completion, dying in 1682, one year after the Salute’s dedication but five years before it was complete.
I began thinking of Il Redentore and S. Maria della Salute, the twin plague churches of Venice, in the early days of 2020, when the novel coronavirus (not yet known as COVID-19) began spreading across China. I will spare you a recounting of the pandemic’s brutal chronology, as by now you will know it, as I do, almost by heart. As the situation worsened and it became clear that in addition to ushering in the Year of the Rat, 2020 would also bring us the year of the pandemic, I suddenly felt a curious kinship with the sixteenth and seventeenth century subjects of my academic research. I began to see their world in full Technicolor. In April, 2020, I wrote in my journal: “We know almost nothing about this virus, we do not understand its mechanisms of transmission and reproduction. We are improvising, with almost no knowledge, nothing to grasp when we desperately want something to grasp. We don’t even fully know how to define the effects of this virus, how to describe the cluster of symptoms that might speed a diagnosis. The knowledge will come, but not yet. We live, as the Venetians did, in a realm of uncertainty.”
If you had asked me, circa April 2019, if I might ever see myself in a place where I could consider offering a church in exchange for the end of an epidemic, I may have answered yes, because I grew up in a Catholic milieu, but it would not have seemed rational to me. I might have called it magical thinking. I can tell you now that I no longer feel the same way. I spent a good chunk of early 2020 in a haze, crying as I followed the virus’s progression out of China and into the world, watching as my world dissolved beneath my gaze. If I could promise one church, two churches, ten churches–it all seems rational to me now.
1. Arnold, Thomas F. “Gonzaga Fortifications and the Mantuan Succession Crisis of 1613-1631.” Mediterranean Studies 4 (1994): 113–30. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41166883. Parrott, David. “The Mantuan Succession, 1627-31: A Sovereignty Dispute in Early Modern Europe.” The English Historical Review 112, no. 445 (1997): 20–65. http://www.jstor.org/stable/578507.
2. Cohen, Mitchell, “A Prince Decides in Naxos,” in The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart. Princeton University Press, 2017, 83. https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctvc77gvx. Moore, James H. “‘Venezia Favorita Da Maria’: Music for the Madonna Nicopeia and Santa Maria Della Salute.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 37, no. 2 (1984): 318. https://doi.org/10.2307/831176.
3. See also Lazzari, G., Colavizza, G., Bortoluzzi, F. et al. A digital reconstruction of the 1630–1631 large plague outbreak in Venice. Sci Rep 10, 17849 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-74775-6.
4. See Moore for more on the Madonna’s importance in seventeenth-century Venice, “Venezia Favorita,” 304-307.
This is the first in a forthcoming three-part essay series about sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Venetian artistic responses to the plague.
About the Author: Cynthia Houng is a writer, art historian, and occasional artist based in New York City. Learn more about her work. She is also one of the founding editors of Ars Longa.