​Saint Mary of Health, every November 21st Venetian people renew their vow in occasion of the Black Death of 1630

15 November 2021

Venice, 15th November 2021  – Every November 21st Venetian citizens take a long road in order to bring a church candle to the Saint Mary of Health. No wind, no rain, no snow obstructing their walk. Go and pray the Saint Mary is a must. People usually ask for personal and family protection. A slow and long procession made of people walking, together with their family or with their close friends, by crossing the traditional votive bridge floating on the water. Every year, the bridge is located between the San Marco district to the Dorsoduro district, so as to connect them. The organisation belongs to four centuries ago, since when the doge Nicolò Contarini and the patriarch Giovanni Tiepolo arranged a prayer procession by involving all the citizens who had survived the plague. The procession occurs during three days and nights, in which Venetian people are used to taking a solemn vow to the Saint Mary of Health. People decided to build a temple in her honour if the city survived the plague.

The bond between Venice and the plague is characterised by death and suffering, but also of revenge and strength. The Serenissima remembers two great plagues, which enormously marked the city. Dramatic events causing tens of thousands of dead people in a few months: between 954 and 1793 Venice registered sixty-nine cases of pestilence. The most important one happened in 1630 which lead to the construction of the Saint Mary of Health’s Cathedral, signed by Baldassarre Longhena. The Republic paid 450 ducats for it.

The plague have been spreading like wild fire. First, the San Vio district was damaged and, later, the entire city of Vencie. It was also due to the reckless merchants selling the infected garments belonging to dead people. 150 thousands citizens started to panic, the lazarets were overloaded, and infected cadavers were abandoned in the corners of the city. From the 23rd to the 30th, the Patriarch Giovanni Tiepolo organised public prayers over the city, especially in the Cathedral of San Pietro di Castello, ancient patriarchal residence. Moreover, the doge Nicolò Contarini and all the senate joined the prayers. On October 22, it was decided that for 15 Saturdays, a procession would occur in honour of Maria Nicopeja. The plague continued to kill people. Only during the month of November, almost 12 thousands victims were counted. While the prayers were dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the senate deliberately proposed to make a vow to build a church dedicated to the Most Blessed Virgin, called “Saint Mary of Health”, such as the vow made for the Redentore in 1576. Furthermore, the Senate established that every year, in occasion of the official day corresponding to the end of the infection, the doges have had to visit this church in memory of the gratitude towards the Virgin Mary. The first golden ducats were allocated and, in January 1632, the walls of the old houses in the area next to the Punta della Dogana started to be demolished. At last, the Black Death decreased. Almost 50 thousands victims were counted only over the Venetian territory. The disease brought all the Serenissima to its knees, by registering about 700 thousands dead over two years. The temple was consecrated the 9th November 1689, after a half century from the diffusion of the plague. Finally, the celebration was officially postponed until the 21st November.

The vow made is also remembered during the meal. Just for a week a year, in occasion of the Saint Mary of Health, the “castradina” can be tasted, which is a plate made of mutton as a tribute to Dalmatians. The reason why of this homage is because, during the pandemic, only the Dalmatians continued to restock the city by carrying mutton smoked meat. The shoulder and the thigh lamb were prepared almost like the current ham, by salting and massaging them with a tan made of salt, black pepper, cloves, juniper berries, and wild fennel. After the preparation, the pieces of meat were dried, slightly smoked, and hang up out of the fireplaces for forty days, at least.

As far as the origins of the name “castradina” concerns, two hypothesis exists: the first one derives from “castra”, Venetian barracks and fortress located along the islands, where food was stored for the troops and for sailors slaves in the galleries; the second one is referred to a possible diminutive of “castrà”, popular term meaning mutton or lamb meat. The cooking is quiet elaborate because it needs a long preparation. It lasts three days such as the procession reminding us the end of the Black Death. The meat is boiled three times in three days, so as to obtain its purification and to make it tender. Then, the next step is a slow cooking, lasting hours and hours, with the addition of savoy cabbages which turns it into a tasty soup.