Festa del Redentore is one of the most important traditional events in Venice. It celebrates the end of the plague of the 16th century and has been an annual event ever since. It takes place during the weekend of the third Sunday of July and combines religious events, a pontoon bridge, parties with families and friends, huge fireworks and regattas.
Between 1575 and 1577, Venice was decimated by the Bubonic plague, which likely arrived from Turkey aboard a commercial vessel. The plague killed 50,000 people, almost one third of the total population, the most famous victim being the painter Titian. The word quarantine in fact comes the Venetian dialect form of quaranta giorni, meaning forty days – the time period of isolation for ships and people during the time of the plague.
In 1576, Doge Alvise Mocenigo begged God to end the scourge. He promised to build a large church in exchange for saving the city-state. When the plague ended in July 1577, the new Doge, Sebastiano Venier honored the promise to God and had a temporary wooden church built in the span of a few short days. In 1578, he also began a new tradition by installing a temporary bridge for a pilgrimage across the Giudecca Canal from Zattere to the church. The wooden church was later replaced by the Redentore Church, the Church of the Redeemer.
The Church of the Redentore was built on the place of the former church dedicated to Santa Maria degli Angeli, which was given to the Capuchins on the Giudecca Island. Andrea Palladio designed the church and laid the first stone in May 1577. After Palladio’s death in 1580, work continued under the supervision of Antonio da Ponte, the architect of the Rialto Bridge. In 1592, the church was completed and consecrated by Lorenzo Priuli, Patriarch of Venice, under Doge Pasquale Cicogna.
The Redentore Church is one of Palladio’s finest churches. The façade can be best admired from Zattere, on the other side of the Giudecca Canal. Its wide staircase and huge doorway are especially designed for processions. The interior is far more austere than many churches from the same period. This was intended to align with the vows of poverty taken by the Capuchin monks.
The festivities last the entire weekend and combine religious (somber) and secular (fun) activities. The weekend of the Festa del Redentore is the only time that Giudecca is connected to the rest of Venice. This used to be via a bridge of barges, but it now uses a pontoon bridge comprised of 16 parts. The bridge is almost 1,100 feet long and 12 feet wide. Walking on the bridge at the same level of the church provides a great opportunity to admire its beautiful façade.
This event is celebrated intensively by all Venetians, young and old. They start to decorate their boats in the morning with garlands of flowers and flags and load enough food and drink for a long night with family and friends. From the late afternoon to early evening, the canal becomes filled with boats, large and small, with dinners and parties on board preceding the fireworks. The sky above the Bacino di San Marco becomes lit in gold and red, the colors of the City of Venice, as the fireworks display draws gasps and cheers of approval from the gathered crowd.
The regatta of colorful boats takes place in the Giudecca Canal, with an arrival in front of the Redentore Church. There are two races with twin-oared pupparini: one for youngsters and one for men. The pupparin is a swift, agile boat traditionally used by maritime guards or as a barca da casada (family boat). Wider in the stern (poppa), from which it takes its name, the pupparin is generally about 30 feet long and is usually rowed by either two or as many as four oarsmen. The main regatta is the one for the twin-oared gondola, the queen of Venetian boats.
There are also some smaller activities around the church, such as a lottery and a small market. If you arrive early, you have plenty of time to walk around to get into the festive mood. Make sure to check out the entire island, not only along the canal. There are plenty of beautiful areas to discover. Unlike Carnevale, Festa del Redentore is primarily celebrated by the Venetians. But unlike the giant party preceding Lent, it is one that all who have a love of Italy should experience at least once in their lifetime.