A monumental sigh of relief, this splendid domed church was commissioned by Venice’s plague survivors as thanks for salvation. Baldassare Longhena's uplifting design is an engineering feat that defies simple logic, and in fact the church is said to have mystical curative properties. Titian eluded the plague until age 94, leaving a legacy of masterpieces now in Salute's sacristy.
Longhena's marvel makes good on an official appeal by the Venetian Senate directly to the Madonna in 1630, after 80,000 Venetians had been killed by plague brought in by a carpenter working on Venice's quarantine island, the Lazzaretto Vecchio. The Senate promised the Madonna a church in exchange for her intervention on behalf of Venice – no expense or effort spared. Before 'La Salute' could even be started, at least 100,000 pylons had to be driven deep into the barene (mud banks) to shore up the tip of Dorsoduro.
The Madonna provided essential inspiration, but La Salute draws its structural strength from a range of architectural and spiritual traditions. Architectural scholars note striking similarities between Longhena's unusual domed octagon structure and both Greco-Roman goddess temples and Jewish cabbala diagrams. The lines of the building ingeniously converge beneath the dome to form a vortex on the inlaid marble floors, and the black dot at the centre is said to radiate healing energy.
The newly restored sacristy is a wonder within a wonder, featuring 12 key works by Titian – including a vivid self-portrait in the guise of St Matthew and his earliest known work from 1510, Saint Mark on the Throne . Salute's most charming allegory for Venice's miraculous survival from plague is Palma Il Giovane's painting of Jonah emerging from the mouth of the whale, where the survivor stomps down the sea creature's tongue like an action hero walking the red carpet. Life in a time of plague is a miracle worth celebrating in Tintoretto’s upbeat 1561 Wedding Feast of Cana, featuring a Venetian throng of multi-culti musicians, busy wine pourers, and Tintoretto himself in the pink, gently schooling a young, thin-bearded Paolo Veronese.
Thousands still observe the annual pilgrimage on Festa della Madonna della Salute, heading across a pontoon bridge from Piazetta Santa Maria del Giglio to the church, where Venetians light candles for the continued health of their families and their extraordinary city. Unlike many Venetian churches, Salute remains an active place of prayer and reflection; out of respect for worshippers, no flash photography is allowed.