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Exploring Venice’s 500-year-old Redeemer Festival

Redeemer Church, Venice

tilialucida | Shutterstock

V. M. Traverso - published on 07/15/23

On the 3rd Sunday of July, Venetians gather to celebrate the end of the 16th-century European plague that killed an estimated 1/3 of the population.

There is never a bad time to visit Venice, a city built on water that has for the past 1,500 years attracted travelers, artists, and intellectuals from all over the world. If you do have the chance to visit Venice in mid July, however, you will be able to attend one of the most important celebrations of this historic city.

Each year, on the third Sunday of July, Venetians gather on bridges, boats, and docks to celebrate the Redeemer Feast. This celebration goes back to 1576, when Venetians gathered for the Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer to give thanks for the end of the 1575-1577 plague that killed nearly a third of the population.

During that terrible epidemic, Venice’s ruler Doge Alvise I Mocenigo promised to build a church if the plague ended. When the epidemic started to fade, Mocenigo ordered the construction of a church called “Il Redentore,” or “The Redeemer,” on the island of Giudecca.

Basilica del Redentore in Venice
Venice’s Church of the Redeemer was built in 1567 to give thanks for the end of the plague.

The first stone of what is now one the most iconic churches of Venice, designed by Renaissance architect Palladio with artworks from Venetian masters Tintoretto and Veronese, was laid down in 1577. It took 15 years to complete the towering church, which was consecrated in 1592.

In order to worship at the church before completion, ingenious Venetians devised an innovative system of floating bridges to make sure that the altar of the church could have been accessible from the mainland. On July 20 1577, a floating bridge made with boats attached to one another with a system of ropes was arranged to let the Doge access the nascent church.

Festa del Redentore in Venice, pontoon bridge
It usually takes 24 hours for highly skilled maritime engineers to set up the famous “votive bridge” that connects the mainland to the Church of the Redeemer.

That ingenious solution is still honored today when engineers create a 1,000-ft long pontoon bridge to access the Redeemer Church from the mainland during the Friday leading up to the Redeemer Festival. It usually takes 24 hours for highly skilled maritime engineers to set up the famous “votive bridge.”

On Sunday, believers gather for the annual Redeemer procession, whose last leg runs over the floating bridge. A special Mass to give thanks for the end of the plague is celebrated in each of the city’s 130 churches, including St. Mark’s Cathedral and, of course, the Redeemer church. The City of Venice is then blessed in a Solemn Mass celebrated by Venice’s Patriarch in St. Mark’s Cathedral on Sunday at 7 p.m.

Ponte del Redentore a Venezia
On Sunday, believers gather for the annual Redeemer procession whose last lag runs on the floating bridge that connects the mainland with the Redeemer Church.

On the eve of the Feast, Venetians engage in one of the most stunning festivity preparations in the world. Every boat and terrace gets decorated with festoons, flags, and flowers. At sunset, boats start to go out to find a good spot from which to watch the fireworks show that takes place later in the evening. Dinner is consumed on boats, with Venetians passing typical dishes like bovoleti (small snails) or sarde in saor (sardines and onions) from one boat to the next, or in one of the long convivial tables set up along the water on the Giudecca island.

At around 11 p.m., fireworks set up by boats moored near the island of San Giorgio Maggiore light up the sky and shimmer over the waters of Venice’s canals. People flock from all corners of the world to assist in this unique celebration, with as many as 100,000 people attending each year. For Venetians, this is a deeply felt celebration that combines faith and gratitude with conviviality. 

Religious celebrations start on Friday, July 13, with the opening of the “votive bridge,” followed by a vigil organized by the parishes of Venice headed by Don Antonio Biancotto. Holy Mass takes place on Sunday at 8, 9.30, 11, 12.30, 15.30 and 17, and a Solemn Mass takes place in St. Mark’s Cathedral at 7 p.m. 

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