On November 21 of each year, Venetians go a long way to bring a candle or a candle to the Madonna della Salute. There is no wind, rain or snow to hold. It is a duty to go to pray and ask Our Lady for protection for oneself and loved ones. A slow and long procession made on foot in the company of family or close friends, traditionally crossing the votive bridge as more, which every year is positioned to connect the San Marco district to that of Dorsoduro.
This is because, four centuries ago, the doge Nicolò Contarini and the patriarch Giovanni Tiepolo organized a procession of prayer that gathered all the citizens who survived the plague. The Venetians made a solemn vow to Our Lady who built a temple in her honor if the city survived the epidemic. READ ALSO: 2021 celebrations program
The plague epidemic
The bond that unites Venice and the plague is made up of death and suffering, but also of revenge and the will and strength to fight and start again. The Serenissima recalls two great plagues, of which the city still bears the marks. Dramatic episodes that caused tens of thousands of deaths in a few months. Between 954 and 1793 Venice recorded a total of sixty-nine episodes of plague. Among these, the most important was that of 1630, which then led to the construction of the Temple of Health, signed by Baldassare Longhena, and which cost the Republic thousands of ducats.
The plague spread like wildfire, first in the San Vio district, then throughout the city, also aided by the recklessness of the merchants who resold the clothing of the dead. The then 150 thousand inhabitants panicked because of the overcrowded lazzaretti, in the corners of the streets abandoned the corpses of the dead from contagion.
Patriarch Giovanni Tiepolo ordered that public prayers be held throughout the city from 23 to 30 September 1630. In particular in the cathedral of San Pietro di Castello, then the patriarchal seat. Doge Nicolò Contarini and the whole Senate joined these prayers. On 22 October it was decided that a procession in honor of Maria Nicopeja should take place for 15 Saturdays. But the plague continued to claim victims. In the month of November alone, almost 12,000 victims were recorded.
The Church of the Madonna della Salute
While we continued to pray to Our Lady and the Senate decided that, as happened in 1576 with the vote to the Redeemer, a vow should be made to build a church to be dedicated to the “Blessed Virgin, naming it Santa Maria della Salute”. Every year, on the official day of the end of the contagion, the doges will solemnly go to visit this church, in memory of the gratitude towards the Madonna. After the first gold ducats were allocated, in January 1632 the walls of the old houses began to be dismantled in the area adjacent to Punta della Dogana.
The plague finally subsided. With almost 50 thousand victims in Venice alone. The disease had also brought the entire territory of the Serenissima to its knees, recording about 700,000 deaths in two years. The temple was consecrated on November 9, 1687, half a century after the spread of the disease, and the date of the festival was officially moved to November 21.
The Feast of the Madonna della Salute at the table
The vow made is also remembered at the table. Only for one week a year, on the occasion of the Madonna della Salute, it is possible to taste the “castradina”, a mutton-based dish that was born as a tribute to Dalmatians. Because during the pandemic only Dalmatians continued to supply the city by transporting smoked mutton in trabaccoli. The shoulder and the thigh of the mutton or lamb were prepared almost like today’s hams. Salt and massage with a tanning made from a mix of salt, black pepper, cloves, juniper berries and wild fennel flowers.
After preparation, the pieces of meat were dried and lightly smoked and hung outside the cami for at least forty days. There are two hypotheses on the origin of the name “castradina”. The first derived from “castra”, the barracks and deposits of the fortresses of the Venetians scattered on the islands of their possessions, where the food for the troops and the slave sailors of the galleys were kept.
The second is a diminutive of “castrà”, a popular term for mutton or lamb mutton. The cooking of the dish is quite elaborate because it requires a long preparation, which lasts three days like the procession in memory of the end of the plague. The meat is boiled three times in three days, to allow its purification and make it tender; it then proceeds with slow cooking, for hours, and with the addition of cabbage which transforms it into a tasty soup.