In 1576, with Venice in the grip of one of the worst plagues in its history, the authorities attempted to bribe God to relent, promising as a quid pro quo for deliverence the construction of a magnificent temple to Christ the Redeemer. A site on the Giudecca was chosen over two others in the city and the 68-year-old Andrea Palladio comissioned to provide alternative round and rectangular plans. Meanwhile more profane and practical measures were also being taken with regard to the quarantining of victims and citizens at risk, which are graphically described in the chapter on the Lazzaretto Nuovo in our ‘The Abandoned Islands of the Venetian Lagoon’.
Whether through divine or civic intervention Venice eventually emerged on the other side of the plague and the ‘Redentore’ was duly built (although Palladio, who died in 1580, did not live to see it) and became the focus of an annual pilgrimage by means of a pontoon bridge, originally from near Harry’s Bar, latterly from the Zattere, which continues to this day. It is interesting that what has become very much a boating event, with all kinds of colourful craft decked out with picnic tables and Chinese lanterns (very likely these days from China) descending on the Bacino, was in earlier times exactly the opposite, the pontoon bridge offering a rare opportunity to visit the gardens of the Giudecca without having to pay for the passage.
Here is an early nineteenth century description of the event from Giusina Renier Michiel’s ‘Feste Veneziane’ (first edition, 1817-27). Her chapter opens grandly “Qual tempio è questo che si maestosamente torreggia?” and she goes on to write, with egalitarian fervour:
“The Feast of the Redeemer continued always to be regarded as a sacred and solemn event and it was the custom every year to repeat the ceremony. But in the course of time there came to be mixed with it something of the profane. The facility offered by this extraordinary bridge for passing over on foot from the other side and exploring the gardens and canal-sides of the Giudecca and enjoying the cool evening air under its pergolas encouraged the populace to extend through the whole night this rare holiday, or as it came to be called by the Venetians, the ‘Sagra’ (festival) of the Redeemer.
Soon you could see the streets, the fondamente and the gardens there thronged, like those of Santa Marta [another area greener then than now] with those mobile kitchens, those simple and gay suppers, where nothing could spoil the most innocent pleasures. It was wonderful to see brigades of artisans, workmen, gondoliers, with their wives and children, mixing freely with groups of fine ladies and gentlemen, lying full-length on the grass, or seated around rudimentary tables. Equal to all the joys and pleasures, equal among all the foodstuffs: roast chicken on that evening the hero of the hour. Everyone shared with genuine satisfaction in an equality which crowned the general delight.”