by Monica Cesarato
Here in Venice, every occasion is good to celebrate, above all if it can be done with cakes, drinks or otherwise. All through Fall we have various events and celebrations, but November is the time in which Venice celebrates San Martino (on the 11th) and La Madonna della Salute (on the 21th), two very Venetian local events, which are not celebrated anywhere else in Italy and which have survived through centuries.
On 11th November of each year all over the province of Venice and in Venice Historic city, bakeries and cakes shops, to celebrate San Martino, sell the traditional San Martino cake: a short-crust cake covered in sweets and icing, made in the shape of a Knight riding his horse. In the old days, housewives used to make this cake at home and give it to their loved ones. Nowadays, parents usually buy the cake for their children from shops. The cakes are usually prepared or purchased a few days before the 11th and unwrapped and eaten on the day of San Martino, for the joy of children and adults alike.
Now let’s take a look at the reasons why Venetians celebrate this Saint…
The Legend of San Martino
Martin was born in 316/317 A.D. in the Roman province now known as Hungary. His father, a soldier, called him Martin in honour of the War God Mars. Martin wanted to become a catechumenate, but because he was the son of a Roman Veteran, he was only allowed to become a soldier and at 15 he was forced to enter in the army. Martin became a circitor, the man in charge of doing the night rounds. It was during one of those nights that Martin met, right in the middle of winter, a half naked poor man. Martin felt sorry for him and using his sword, cut his cape in two and gave half of it to the poor man. When he went to bed, Martin dreamt of Christ smiling at him while he was wearing the cape.
Martin was a soldier for over 20 years but always acted as a real Christian. When he was about 40, he left the army and became a monk, dedicating his remaining life to the study of God. Martin retired in a villa near Poitiers, in France, were he preached the word of Jesus and created the monastery of Ligugè, the oldest in Europe. After many years he was declared bishop of Tours and he lived there for 26 years. He became a missionary and he created Marmoutier, the first centre where priests were trained into the word of God. He died the 8th November 397 and his funerals took place on the 11th November, hence the Venetian celebration.
In the old days in Venice, the children used to celebrate by going around the town banging on pots and pans and ringing bells, singing:
Oh che odori de pignata Se magnè bon prove fazza Se ne de del bon vin cantaremo San martin, San martin n’à mandà qua Perchè ne fe la carità Anca lu co’l ghe n’aveva Carità ghe ne faseva. Fe attenzion che semo tanti E fame gavemo tuti quanti Stè atenti a no darne poco Perchè se no stemo qua un toco!
What a lovely smell of pots, if we eat well we will rehearse well, if you give us good wine we will sing, We were sent by Saint Martin so you can do some charity, since he did a lot of charity. Be careful, we are many and we are all hungry, Do not give us little otherwise we will stay here for long!
If they managed to get sweets and cakes at the end of the songs, they will then sing:
E con questo la ringrasiemo Del bon animo e del bon cuor. Un altro ano ritornaremo. Se ghe piease al bon Signor Viva viva San Martin
And with this we thank you for your good will, we will come back next year if you will, Viva Saint Martin
If they did not get anything they will sing:
Tanati ciodi gh’è in sta porta Tanti diavoli che ve porta Tanti ciodi gh’è in sto muro Tanti bruschi ve vegna sul culo
For all the nails there are on this door, so many devils you will get; for all the nails on this wall, so many pimples you will get on your back!
This amusing tradition is now brought back by many nurseries and primary schools, so do not be surprised if on that day you will see long lines of small children walking with their teacher and knocking at every door!
Santa Maria Della Salute
Another famous Venetian celebration that takes place in November is Santa Maria Della Salute. On 21st November of every year – the day of the presentation to the Virgin Mary – Venice celebrates the end of the plague of 1636. This is the dearest to the Venetians of all the city celebrations, the only one which still preserves the religious character with which it was started originally. The night before the 21st , Venetians build the pilgrimage bridge made of boats, starting from Campo Santa Maria del Giglio up to the church of Madonna Della Salute, crossing the Canal Grande. This is the bridge that allows the pilgrims to perform their ritual walk up to the church. The little campo in front of the church is filled with stalls selling religious candles of all shapes and sizes and with all local traditional sweets and cakes, specially cooked for this occasion. The amount of local Venetians coming up to the church brings the memory back to the times when Venice was a proud and powerful Republic and the sense of religion was strong in the city.
The plague arrived in Europe at the beginning of the 14th Century, it reached Venice in 1348 when the mortality in the city was 50% of the population. A second big plague struck in 1575-1577 (in that occasion the Venetian built the church of the Redentore) and finally the city suffered again in 1630-31. During those dark times 14,300 people lived in Venice and more than 30% of the population died. The plague of 1630 was brought to the city by the ambassador of Mantua and it spread immediately. The city dropped into a state of terror, all activities with the outside world stopped and entire buildings were quarantined. Everything that had been in contact with the disease was destroyed and those who were infected where confined to the lazzareti (the word Lazzareto comes from the island of Lazzareto Vecchio, where all the infected people where confined). Even letters were disinfected to make sure they did not carry the disease.
Remembering the results that the building of Redentore brought to Venice (the end of the plague in 1578), the Senate pledged to celebrate the end of the plague by building a church in the name of the Virgin Mary and they pledged to celebrate the ending of the disease every year by organizing a pilgrimage to the same church.
The Senate chose a project by Baldassare Longhena and they started building in 1631. The enormous dome (in stone and artwork) required 1,156,627 foundation poles and 50 years of hard work. Longhena just managed to see his masterpiece completed when he died in 1682. The church, while novel in many ways, still shows the influence of Palladian classicism and the domes of Venice.
The night before the 21st, the bridge of boats is built to allow pilgrims to cross over to the church to participate in the celebration.
Mass is usually celebrated every hour starting from 6am and continuing through 8pm (last mass).
So if you thought the winter season did not offer much in Venice, think again! This is a 365 days a year city, where all times are good to party and have fun!
Monica Cesarato runs her own B&B on the Riviera del Brenta, just outside Venice, teaches Venetian cooking at http://www.cookinvenice.com and also blogs about life in Venice and Italian lifestyle in her own blog.