The Madonna della Salute has an origin of mourning and suffering, which still remains a devotional feast for the Venetians.
At the beginning of the 1600s, Italy was going through a turbulent period, both for the continuous reshuffles in the succession of the various governments, and for the presence of foreign troops such as the French, the Spanish and the Germans, who roamed there to conquer new territories or defend some comfortable Italian ally. In October 1629 German armed gangs had descended to Lombardy, and cases of plague had been reported near Lecco, then spreading to Milan where the disease erupted throughout the city and beyond, until reaching Bergamo, which was part of of the Venetian territory. In the meantime, the Duchy of Mantua was in a full war of succession, between the Prince of Guastalla supported by the Spaniards and the legitimate house, the Nevers, a branch of the Gonzaga family, which the French were unable to defend.
The Serenissima defended the legitimate house with her men, also to free the Italian territories from the Spaniards; German troops who, temporarily allied to the Spaniards, occupied Mantua, provoking war. Together with the war, however, they brought, as already in Lombardy, the terrible disease of the plague that also infected the Venetian soldiers who fought them. Although the command of the Venetian forces, given the numerous victims of the plague among the Germans, had decided to abandon the field and start negotiations, the disease still arrived in Venice. In June 1630, in addition to the soldiers returning home, the ambassador of the Duchy of Mantua also arrived in the city. Since he came from an infected area, he was quarantined on an island, at the Lazzaretto Vecchio, and then transferred to the island of San Clemente. Soon the ambassador died with all his entourage; it seems that at the same time the only person who had contact with the ambassador died of a plague in his home: a carpenter who went to the island every day to do some work and in the evening he returned to the city, bringing with him the disease. The plague began to spread like wildfire, first from the district of San Vio, then very fast throughout the city, also helped by the ignorance of merchants who sold the clothes of the dead and by the lack of knowledge of hygiene rules.
The then 150,000 inhabitants of Venice panicked; the lazzaretti were overcrowded and possibly no longer absolute for their purpose, there was even no manpower to guarantee the infected in the places assigned to them, the streets and fields were deserted and the silence was broken even by the moans of the dying in the suitcases. In the corners of the streets you could see the corpses of the dead from contagion brought out of their areas by desperate relatives and that no one did take, wherever there was a sharp smell and plague they roamed the city in search of help. There was no lack of looting: shady individuals wandered through the suitcases now deserted or full of corpses, in the sealed ones because of the disease or were in the homes of the dying to steal everything by making fun of them. The government issued severe restrictions against them, punishing them immediately on the spot, hanging them in adjacent fields or shooting them with musket shots.
The Provveditori alla Sanità, already operating during the big plague epidemic of 1575, issued many provisions for public health, such as reclaiming the insane houses where more families lived, dividing the sick among the various hospitals and lazzaretti, sending healthy people to work in the countryside, create assistance for the needy. However, all the provisions of the government were of no avail, and the plague showed no signs of easing; as already in 1575 we turned to heaven. Patriarch Giovanni Tiepolo ordered that public prayers be held throughout the city from 23 to 30 September 1630, especially in the cathedral of San Pietro di Castello, the patriarchal seat.
These prayers were joined by the doge Nicolò Contarini and the whole Senate; on October 22 it was decided that for fifteen Saturdays a procession should be held in honor of the Madonna around St. Mark's Square, carrying an image called Maria Nocopeja. The plague, however, continued to claim victims, sometimes favored also by these public prayers and processions, where a large number of participants were piling up spreading the infection among them: only in November there were 11,966 victims. In the meantime, prayers continued to be made to Our Lady and the Senate decided that, since in 1576 there was a vow to build a temple to the Redeemer and the plague ended, "... it is necessary for the Serenissimo Principe for public name to make a solemn vow to SDM to erect in this City and dedicate a Church to the Blessed Virgin, titling it Santa Maria della Salute, ... ". Furthermore, the Senate decided that every year, on the official day of the end of the infection, the doges should solemnly go to visit this church, in memory of gratitude for the Madonna. The first 50,000 gold ducats were allocated for the construction of the church, to be erected near the Punta della Dogana, in place of the seminary and of existing houses.
In January 1532 the walls of the old houses began to be dismantled, practically in conjunction with the description of the plague, and the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini was asked for availability to sculpt the image of the Madonna; the foundation stone ceremony was held on April 1st by building, for the occasion, a bridge of boats that crossed the Grand Canal towards the building being built. On that day an imposing procession preceded by the image of Nicopeja moved from San Marco to the place established with all the authorities and the people, excluding women who at that time could not leave their wards. A gold medal, ten silver and twelve copper medals were placed together with the first stone. On September 6, 1631 the foundations were laid according to the construction project of Baldassarre Longhena, chosen by the Senate among the eleven presented. The large round base construction cost the Republic four hundred thousand ducats (almost fourteen quintals of gold) and one million poles were used only for the stilts.
The plague finally disappeared and November 28 was declared the official day of liberation from the disease. On that day of celebration the whole of San Marco and the center was decorated with tapestries, rugs and silks and solemn ceremonies were held there; the Venetians, happy at the end of that dark period, willingly gave thanks to the Madonna that they believed had saved them. With almost 50,000 victims in Venice alone, a third of the population, the plague had brought the entire territory of the Republic to its knees, with about 700,000 deaths in 2 years.
The Temple (i.e. the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute) was consecrated on 9 November 1687 and the date of the festival was moved forever to 21 November. On this day the population, whatever the climate which is often inclement in November, still goes on pilgrimage to the church through the pontoon bridge built for the occasion on the Grand Canal. The Fair takes place in front of the church and in the nearby fields and there are stalls selling vendors of candles, fritters, sweets in general, balloons and toys for children, in a mixture of sacred and profane.
On this day it was traditional to consume the castradina, now in disuse, a dish made with salted mutton, smoked and dried in the sun, which was imported by Schiavoni from Dalmatia, Bosnia, Slavonia and Albania, considering it rightly, for the knowledge of that time, less contagious than the most common fresh food and therefore more suitable to feed the suffering population.