The history St. Rocco’s Feast, a Venetian liturgical tradition since 1577

23 August 2021

Venice, 14 August 2021- St. Rocco’s Feast is one of the major recurrences that, still nowadays, take place in the city of Venice. Each year, on August 16, the Saint is celebrated with a procession that starts from Campo dei Frari, reaches the Church of San Rocco and the namesake confraternity, and closes with a Solemn Mass in the lavish context of the Chapter House of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

The San Rocco’s Feast program of 2021 includes, in addition to the Pontifical High Mass by Patriarch Francesco Moraglia that takes place at 10.30am at the Scuola Grande and dedicated to the Saint, also the award ceremony of the San Rocco Prize 2021. Moreover, from 1.00pm to 6.00pm (last admission at 5.30pm) it will be possible to visit the Scuola Grande with a donation of 1€ for charity. At 8.30pm, following the celebrations, the orchestra “Virtuosi Veneti'' will perform the traditional concert in Campo San Rocco, playing symphonies by Vivaldi, Torelli and Tartini with Piergiuseppe Doldi on trumpet, Enzo Carolli on flute and with the artistic direction of Alessio Benedettelli.

The roots of the Feast of San Rocco in Venice

The roots of this celebration and of the bond between the Saint and the city of Venice date back to the 16th century, during the period of the terrible plague’ outbreak that struck the city between 1575 and 1577 and caused 50,000 deaths. To save the city from the plague, the Venetians invoked the grace of San Rocco, whose remains were lying in the Church dedicated to him since 1490. The defeat of the disease in 1577 is, therefore, partly attributed to the Saint and to praise what he has done on August 16 of every year, since then, San Rocco is celebrated. The date of the celebration was chosen at the behest of the Senate of the Serenissima Republic, which also declared August 16 a public holiday.

As depicted in the canvas by Canaletto “Visita del Doge alla Chiesa di S. Rocco”, today kept at the National Gallery of London, every year to the Church on August 16 the Doge arrived after the High Mass and visited the treasures- only preceded by the treasures of San Marco- which houses inside the church hall of the Scuola Grande, established in 1478 by a lay confraternity and decorated with the works of Tintoretto, Giorgione, and Tiepolo. The Doge, in fact, every year during the celebrations arrived at the Church dedicated to the Saint carried by a golden boat, followed by the Serenissima Lordship, members of the Senate and ambassadors, all welcomed by the Scuola Grande di San Rocco.

The chaplain of the confraternity arranged the celebration of the Holy Mass, which was followed by a parade that went from the Church of San Rocco to the Scuola Grande and dedicated to the Saint, that allowed the believers to admire the treasures and to venerate the remains of the Saint, preserved right inside the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, the only confraternity that is privileged with the remains of the Saint to whom the same institution is dedicated.

Moreover, a majestic canopy, called by Venetians “El tendòn del Doge" was set up in Campo San Rocco to connect the Church of the Frari to the Church of San Rocco and the Scuola Grande, and had the dual function of shading the procession from sun and giving a scenic effect to the celebration. Still today this tradition is maintained by setting up a four-poster structure right in front of the entrance of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which houses the celebrations of this major venetians’ commemoration.

The history of San Rocco

San Rocco is the second patron of the city after San Marco. Born to a wealthy family in Montpellier, at the age of twenty he decided to leave his well-off lifestyle and devote himself entirely to faith, due to the early loss of both his parents. After joining the Franciscan Third Order, St. Rocco undertook a pilgrimage that brought him to Rome, city symbol of Christianity. Later on, in the surroundings of Acquapendente near the city Viterbo, a place hardly hit by the plague, he began to take care of the sick. His dedication in rescuing the plague victims went as far as to reach Emilia Romagna, where the epidemic disease was spreading through with greater intensity. St. Rocco called upon God to heal the infected and, to cure them, drew a cross on their chest, the same cross that, as a birthmark, he had at the level of his heart. St. Rocco’ journey as a healer continued reaching the city of Piacenza where, after discovering he had contracted the disease, he decided to distance himself in a clearing. St. Rocco miraculously recovered from the plague and continued to help and treat the sick for a long time and his devotion earned him the recognition of Patron Saint of the sick. The Saint died in the Prison of Voghera on August 16 in the late 1300s, following a sentence for political issues that lasted for five long years. Next to his body, just before he died, St. Rocco left a writing that read: “Whoever invokes blessing upon me against the plague, will be freed from this scourge”.