The history of the Votive Bridge: the “floating” bond between Venetians and Redentore

23 August 2021

Venice, 16 July 2021- Every year since 1577 Venice set up a path on water, a temporary and suggestive passage created to reach on foot the symbol of its most heartfelt celebration: the Redentore. This connection that, since the sixteenth century allowed Venetians to cross the Giudecca canal by foot to reach, on pilgrimage, the Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, had and still has, an important religious and social value. As an image and symbol of the “famous recurrence”, the votive bridge has come for centuries along with the celebrations of the Redentore. Over the years, the structures have undergone several transformations but without ever betraying its most important function, the one of acting as “floating” and iconic bond between two different parts of the city, both equally devastated by a disease that they had strongly managed to destroy together.

The evolution of the Votive Bridge: a tradition renewed for over 440 years

The first votive bridge of the Redentore dates back to 1577. It wasn’t a real bridge, but rather a set of boats placed side by side, which allowed to reach the shore opposite to the one of the Zattere, to reach what would become the Church in honor of Christ the Redeemer. The first boat bridge was set up by Venetians to celebrate, with a procession towards the island of Giudecca, the end of an epidemic that lasted for two years, and this tradition still lasts, 444 years later, as an essential part of the celebrations of the Redentore.

However, over time the meaning of this recurrence did not change as did the structure of this water path that went from being made up of boats then becoming the “military” face of the so-called Bailey bridge, made of steel and wood modules, that allowed a quick and easy assembly and disassembly. The Bailey bridge, of English origin and forsaken by the allies after the Second World War, was acquired by the 2nd Bridge Engineer Regiment of Italy which during the Redentore, for fifty years, assembled it on the Giudecca Canal as a military exercise. Declared, in 2002, as a “remnant of war” this type of bridge was replaced by the modern floating structure. The new votive bridge then became property of the Insula company expertise whose proposal, to build it from flexible material, was accepted by the local administration on March 1, 2002, as an innovative and functional option different from the old one.

The Venetians company still realize the votive bridge as we know it today, a structure that is set up just a couple of days before the beginning of the popular celebration and is inaugurated the Friday before the day of the Redentore as to remember the symbolic transition on water that, more than 440 years later, has still the same emotional resonance.

The bridge made of boats: a true Venetian style tradition not just during the Redentore

The bridge made of boats it’s a genuine Venetian tradition and the symbol of an everlasting vow. This kind of temporary crosswalk on water was, and still is, used by Venetians on several occasions on the occasion of local festivities. The floating votive bridge was assembled not only during the day of the Redentore but also on the occasion of the Feast of Our Lady of Health (Madonna della Salute), every 21 November, allowing both the believers and all other citizens to cross the Grand Canal, on pilgrimage, and to reach on the opposite shore the Church which was built as a solemn vow to the Virgin Mary for the deliverance from the plague. Even the Venice Marathon, an important sporting event where athletes challenge themselves in a Venetian race of 42km, has been using, for some years now, this same 170 meters long floating structure to allow runners to cross the Grand Canal until reaching St. Mark’s Square.

The tradition of bridges made up of boats and used to cross canals involved, during the past, just boats which were placed side by side with some gangways leaning on them that, with no side protections, allowed citizens to reach on foot places otherwise only accessible by sea. To change this kind of approach was the creation of votive bridges that, because of the lack of protections, were dangerous for people crossing them without ending up falling into water. In the 1800s, in fact, an accident caused several deaths precisely due to the poor security of a votive bridge and because of the excessive number of people assembled on it.

The boats’ bridge was also set up during the Day of the Dead, on November 2, to allow citizens to reach by foot the island cemetery of San Michele, from Fondamente Nove, a tradition that the city strongly wanted to resume in 2019, but that was stopped last years because of the pandemic outbreak.