The 1630 outbreak of the plague in Venice was devastating for the population of the city and the lagoon. A third of the population died from the urban areas and 94,000 citizens living on the lagoon islands also perished. The population of Europe at the time did not yet understand the causes of the plague and so repeated processions of the sacrament to San Rocco and San Lorenzo churches made no impact on the outbreak, in fact the gatherings probably made it worse.
The senate of Venice decided a new church was to be built but it had to be within easy reach of St Mark’s Square so it was built on the finger of land between the two important canals of the city. The Venetian fathers also decreed that the senate would visit the church once a year on October 22nd and a pontoon bridge is still put in place to access this famous church from St Mark’s Square on this date. The Church is dedicated to Saint Mary of Health who is considered the protector of the city.
When I arrived outside Santa Maria della Salute in April of 2023, the fog was still flowing around the church and over the canal so it was difficult to appreciate the architecture of this renowned church. Like so many buildings in Venice in 2023, ‘Salute’ was being renovated both externally and internally so there were a number of barriers to a successful visit. There were extensive coverings over work on the external walls as well as a barrier going round the church to keep visitors back from the walls. This barrier can be seen in the image to the left.
The Venetian senate organised a competition for the design of the new church and the winning design took fifty years to build being completed in 1681. The architect, Baldassare Longhena wrote in the notes to his design, “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.”
The two domes and bell towers were built on a platform made from 1 million wooden piles. The façade of the church that I struggled to see on the morning I visited was decorated with statues of the gospel writers as well as St George and St Theodore.
The interior of the church is octagonal with 8 small chapels around the internal walls. Most of the internal art is centred on the life of the virgin Mary. On the rigt below is the high altar. It apparently houses a Byzantine Madonna and child relic that came from Heraklion on Crete when it fell to the Ottomans in 1669.