Santa Maria della Salute
Over the centuries, diseases have contributed mightily to great art and architecture.
The Church of Santa Maria della Salute is a case in point. In October of 1630, after nearly a third of Venice's 150,000 citizens had been killed by plague, the Venetian Senate made an offer to God: "Stop the plague, and we'll build a church to honor the Virgin Mary."
God came through, or maybe the onset of cooler weather reduced the population of plague-ridden fleas. Whatever the reason, the plague was stopped in its tracks. The Venetian authorities honored their promise by giving the Virgin a prime chunk of real estate near the tip of Dorsoduro, where the Grand Canal merged with St. Mark's Basin.
In the resulting competition for a church design, the winner was an unknown architect named Baldassare Longhena, who had proposed a massive octagonal basilica that combined elements of Venetian Byzantine architecture with domes inspired by St. Peter's in Rome. Longhena described his design as "strange, worthy, and beautiful...in the shape of a round 'machine' such as had never been seen, or invented either in its whole or in part from any other church in the city."
The resulting church wasn't completed until half a century later, in 1682. In The Companion Guide to Venice, Hugh Honour describes Longhena's legacy:
It's beyond the scope of this article to describe the church's architectural features and interior, which are best studied while touring the church with Mr. Honour's Companion Guide in hand. Suffice it to say that the church is massive and awe-inspiring, with a huge central space surrounded by archways that lead to side chapels. The basilica and its dramatic steps of white Istrian stone are built on 1,156,627 wooden pilings that remain intact after more than 300 years.
The Festa della Salute
On November 21 of each year, city workers lay a pontoon bridge over the Grand Canal from the San Marco district to the Salute church. The huge main doors of the basilica are opened, and Venetians walk across the canal to pay their respects to the Virgin Mary or--at the very least--to tradition. Gondoliers bring their oars to be blessed by a priest who recites his incantations from the church steps.
Reaching the Salute church
Santa Maria della Salute is on the opposite side of the Grand Canal from St. Mark's Square, near the triangular tip of the Dorsoduro quarter. If you're visiting the Accademia art gallery or the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Salute is easily to reach on foot from either of those museums. (Just make sure you have a good map, or you could get lost.)
The Grand Canal's scenic No. 1 vaporetto route has a Salute station between the Santa Maria del Giglio and San Marco waterbus stop. Alternatively, you can ride the traghetto (a small, hand-rowed gondola ferry) from the Campo del Traghetto in San Marco, then walk to the Salute from the landing on the Dorsoduro side.
After exploring the Salute church, be sure to visit the Dogana di Mare (the old maritime customs house) next door. And if you don't mind a bit more walking, continue around the tip of Dorsoduro and stroll down the Zattere for a nice view of Giudecca, another of Venice's islands, across the wide Giudecca Canal. (If you're lucky, you may see a passenger ship cruising to the Stazione Marittima farther down the canal.)