The year 1630 witnessed another devastating plague outbreak that lasted for a period of sixteen months, claiming the lives of 46,490 individuals. As a response, the senate once more made the decision to construct a votive church. Due to the profound impact of the plague’s terror, it was deemed imperative that the church be devoted to Mary, recognized as the guardian of well-being and health. The prevailing fear surrounding the outbreak played a significant role in this decision. The San Rocco’s prosperity is not without reason, as it has earned its wealth through various means. Similarly, the construction of the votive church, Il Redentore, took place approximately fifty years prior, serving as another notable example. Palladio’s votive church strongly influenced the architectural design of The Salute, making it the 17th-century counterpart to Il Redentore.
“Because there was not the faintest form of medication, the effects of the plague were disastrous: after a few days, the carpenter and his entire family had died; within a week, dozens died in his neighbourhood; and a week later, there were hundreds of victims throughout the city. The aristocracy and the clergy did not escape it either: the doge and a large part of his family also perished from the disease. Handsome rewards were offered to those who could stop the epidemic. There was a recommendation that anyone sensing symptoms of the disease should drink half a litre of their own urine as soon as possible, suggesting an early suspicion that diseases could be fought by administering antibodies. But in those days, many sought true salvation in religion. For three days and three nights in a row, a procession went around Piazza San Marco, involving almost everyone who was not sick, and finally, on 22 November 1630, the Senate, through Doge Nicolò Contarini, promised to erect a church of unprecedented size and beauty for the Madonna if she would stop the epidemic and rid the city of the plague. And, indeed, barely a week after the procession, the disease did not seem to have spread any further, and a few weeks later it seemed to have been conquered.” Translated from: Luc Verhuyck ‘Venezia Anekdotische reisgids voor Venetië’ Athenaeum-Polak & van Gennep, Amsterdam 2011 p. 364
The Senate held a contest for the construction contract. Eleven designs were submitted. Two of them were seriously considered. One design in the shape of a basilica was from Antonio Smeraldi, named ‘Il Fracao’. His father built the Palladian facade of the San Pietro in Castello. The other design was a central-plan building by Longhena. Longhena attached a letter in which he spoke of ‘rotonda macchina.´ This word macchina means large building, but was also used to describe the famous regattas on the Canal Grande. The shape of the church was completely unique to Venice, since it looks like brightly decorated carousel. The church is an impressive edifice from every point you look at it.
Just like the Senate argued for a long time about whether the Redentore should be a central-plan building like Palladio wanted or a basilica, it also discussed the Salute. There was no unanimity: Longhena received sixty-six and Il Fracao received thirty-nine votes. Baldassare Longhena (Wikipedia) was not an unknown. He had already rebuilt a church in Chioggia, the cathedral (Wikipedia), and built four important palazzi of Patricians. The old fashioned design by Il Fracao probably received support from conservatives in the Senate.
As soon as it became known that the Salute could be built, the myth about this St. Mary church arose. The priest Lorenzo Longo published a famous poem in 1644, exactly thirteen years after the foundations were laid. He wrote that the Doge saw Mary appear in a vision. The Holy Mother carried a church on her arms. Mary had whispered the design of the church to ‘il nuovo Palladio’ or Baldassare Longhena.
This myth reflected in the angels as stone cherubs on the church. According to Longo, the Salute was a symbol of independence of Venetian Christianity, which did not want to recognise the ecclesiastical power of Rome. According to the poem, four Venetian saints appeared next to Mary above the entrance. The church the poet and priest Lorenzo Longo describes, is also shown in a picture by Marco Boschini in 1644 (Wikipedia), the same year as the publication of the poem. The Order that ‘received’ the new church, was the ‘Padri Somaschi’, an Order that wasn’t very faithful to Rome. This Order played a big role in 1606 in the expulsion of Jesuits from the city. If Rome desperately needs La Serenissima in the battle against the Turks, Rome is flexible in regard to Venice: quid pro quo. The radicals in the Senate lost, the moderates who had better ties with Rome won. The Jesuits were allowed to return in 1657 (Il Gesuati). This political twist from the Senate can be found in the Iconography of the Santa Maria della Salute.
The iconography (meaning of the image) of the church was changed. The four Venetian saints – St. Sagredo, St. Magno, St. Lorenzo Giustiani and St. Emiliani – were replaced by angels. The lantern now depicted Mary with a crown with twelve stars. Mary is depicted on a crescent moon. This indicates that she is the full moon and thus immaculate, or immaculate conception. This is usually portrayed as a Mary standing on a crescent moon, on top of a globe, as she tramples a serpent with her foot. Mary on a crescent moon is described in Revelations. That’s why this picture was always seen as a symbol of the immaculate conception. Above the pediment of the facade is also a Mary with child but then with a crown.
Despite this change in the iconography, it was clear from the start that the church would be devoted to Mary. Baldassare Longhena wrote the following about this in a memoranda in 1631: ‘The mystery contained in the dedication of this church to the Holy Mary, reminded me, with the limited talent God gave me, to build the church in the forma rotonda, which means in the shape of a crown.’
It was common to give churches devoted to Mary a central-build shape, especially in Byzantine style, such as the Santa Maria Formose. Longhena knew the central-build at Verona: the Madonna di Campagna (Wikipedia). They turned this church inside out. Longhena placed the cloister (in this case: tower gallery or walkway) inside the church instead of outside, with porticos in front. According to the Venetian myth about the origin of Venice, Mary protected the city. The protection of Mary over the city and health is inscribed in the middle of the floor of the nave, and reads: ‘UNDE ORIGO INDE SALUS‘ or where the source is, health and salvation come’. This refers to the origin of Venice under the protection of Mary.
The annual procession to the new church was laid on the twenty-first of November: the feast of the Presentation of Mary in the temple. Longo’s poem explains the fifteen steps of the stairs leading to the entrance of the Salute. This is the same number that’s mentioned in Salomon’s temple, described in the Bible. The Presentation of Mary would have taken place here.
photos: HarshLight; canopy: Zaironzoom and sculpture: Wolfgang Modorer
The function of this church, gratitude, as well as protection against the plague, can be seen in the main altar. The altar you directly stand eye-to-eye with when stepping into the church through the main entrance. Sculptor Juste Le Court developed a group of sculptures in 1670 for the main altar, showing the personification of the plague, an old ugly woman, being chased away by an angel. A woman kneels on the left, representing Venice, and Mary with her child is standing in the middle on a cloud with the crescent moon under her. In a style that is characteristic of the Baroque. The cap of the Doge can be seen on the pillow at the bottom in the centre.
The myth that the church was put forward by angels stands in stark contrast with the 100,000 trees used for its foundation. In the words of the poet Longo: ‘A fertile buried forest’. A very precious issue, since there was a lack of trees and most new building reused the old foundation piles.
Like the Redentore, the Santa Maria della Salute was primarily a votive church and not a monastic church. As described before, most votive churches are placed on hills or other prominent places, usually on the edge of the city or just outside of it. The pilgrims arriving from outside the city had to be overwhelmed. An example is the basilica of Mary on Mount Berico in Vicenza, which we will walk by when we go to Vicenza on Wednesday. Furthermore, the Salute forms an imaginary circle that connects the San Marco, the Redentore and the Salute to each other. The San Giorgio Maggiore also lies in this circle.
San Marco bottom; Il Redentore top right; San Maria della Salute middle right; San Giorgio Maggiore left
Also, the church is located near the point where customs are. The ships that arrived and had to report to customs immediately saw the Santa Maria della Salute. They were reminded that Mary protected the sea travellers of this city. Also, the church is located near the point where customs are. The ships that arrived at the Punta della Dogana had to report to customs immediately saw the Santa Maria della Salute. They were reminded that Mary protected the sea travellers of this city.
The final report of the commission of five noblemen appointed by the Senate stated what requirements the church had to meet:
1. The interior had to be properly lit.
2. Not too expensive.
3. The main altar had to be clearly visible from the entrance.
4. The rest had to be visible when the procession moved through the church.
Palladio already effectively used the arch at the chancel as a beautiful frame of the main altar. The drama of the Redentore, the conscious creation of an architecture that impresses the participant of the procession, is copied by Longhena. In the Redentore, the church unfolds to the visitor when walking along the centre axis (floor plan). In the Salute first at the axis: entrance and main altar. After this while walking around the octagonal. You get multiple vistas while walking around or standing still and turning your head. From the door you can see the main altar, but not the other six chapels: the view is blocked by the large columns that carry the dome. Longhena got the idea of a round cloister directly around the nave from early Christian examples such as the San Vitale in Ravenna and the San Costanza in Rome. The only example of a semi-circular cloister in Venice can be found in San Zaccaria. So the map is based on Byzantine examples. The perception of space is also very special in the San Vitale in Ravenna (Wikipedia); you don’t discover the structure until you start walking.
Since the annual procession started at San Marco and lead to the Salute via a pontoon bridge, Longhena made sure that the San Marco would also be represented in ‘his church’, at least in certain elements of it. The enormous dome looks a lot like the large dome of the San Marco; the outer shell is much higher than the inner one. While Palladio didn’t take the San Marco into account, Longhena felt obliged to create a connection with San Marco in his church. Both strongly rising domes are clearly visible against the horizon. Baldassare unified the San Marco and both churches by Palladio in his Salute.
Like the Il Redentore, the dome on the side of the Giudecca is flanked by two small towers. These connect the two churches when standing with your back towards the Il Redentore, looking at the city.
This is of course also the case if you take a boat towards customs or sail onto the Giudecca. Two apses are placed in the chancel, next to the main altar. Palladio did this at the two chancels under the dome. Also, the large thermal windows from the IL Redentore can be seen in the side walls of the Salute. The main facade of the Salute has colossal columns at the entrance on high bases and niches that feel quite Palladian. The same thing applies to the combination of colossal and small order. In the interior, the large order, composite, is placed against pillars with half columns; it is flanked by Corinthian pilasters. Quite simple proportions were used in this church, reminiscent of Palladio. The Salute is however no sample of Byzantine and Palladian elements. It is a masterpiece of the Baroque that stands on its own. It can compete with buildings from the birthplace of Baroque: Rome, with Bernini and Borromini. Just like Borromini, Longhena was fascinated with contrasting geometrical shapes (St. Ivo alla Sapienza and the San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane). This ‘obsession’ is clearly visible in the transition from the octagonal nave to the round dome. The sixteen ribs in the dome just run through the pilasters of the tholobate.
Just like Bernini, who made theatre sets, Longhena was aware of the church as a stage, similar to a theatre stage. He carefully interweaved the interior and exterior. Longhena changed the heavy buttresses to visually attractive curls reminiscent of the house of a snail. The twelve apostles are depicted on the twelve ‘snails’ or volutes. Completely above the lantern, Mary can be seen with a crown with twelve stars.
Like Borromini and Bernini, Longhena was not afraid to ignore Vitruvian rules for a better theatrical effect. Longhena for instance used Doric pilasters above the composite order. Vitruvius would turn in his grave at the sight of this. Longhena also placed two windows above a single arch, as if wanting to show that the dome is a completely independent structure that is unrelated to the building underneath it. There is no logical tectonic connection to the upper and lower construction, a deadly sin in Vitruvian logic.