Glancing at the Città di Venezia website just before the Festa della Madonna della Salute last Thursday I'm pretty sure my eyes swept across a phrase describing it as the least turistico of the city's holidays. This is the kind of thing I should have double-checked, but if it were there it was the last thing I wanted to know: as the most alluring marketing line one can use about anything here is that it is "the least touristic." Few phrases draw a crowd of tourists more quickly, so I'll restrain myself from mentioning any such thing about the festa and settle instead for saying that it is the only large holiday event in the city where one can conceivably hear only Italian being spoken--and that alone is worth celebrating. While it lasts.
By the time we arrived at 4 pm the church and the calle of balloons and sweets (known on every other day of the year as the Calle dei Cathecumeni) were packed. Judging by all the pushing inside the church, the Festa della Salute is not one of those holidays that puts believers into a retiring, contemplative, tread-softly-on-Mother-Earth-and-one's-neighbor's-toes kind of mood. But then again, I've been shoved much more forcefully by elderly ladies anxious to board a vaporetto so, relatively speaking, the crowd of people surging forward to have their candle(s) lit as a sign of gratitude to the Virgin for delivering the city from the plague of 1630-31, and as a little nudge for Her to keep them well for the upcoming year, wasn't so bad.
In fact, the one spot in the church where some people did turn their thoughts to Mother Earth (or at least their eyes to the ground), around a small metal disc set into the marble floor, was a small aperture of calm amid the kaleidoscopic shifting all around. There I did as Tiziano Scarpa suggests in a passage of his book Venice Is a Fish (which I've only just gotten, not yet read, and only fortuitously happened upon the morning of the feast):
On the feast of the Madonna della Salute place yourself at the exact center of the octagonal church, beneath the lead chandelier that plunges tens of meters from the dome; drag the sole of your foot across the bronze disc set into the floor, as tradition decrees, touch with the tip of your shoe the words unde origo inde salus cast into the metal: from the origin comes salvation, the origin is the earth, walking on it brings you luck, does you good; salvation rises up from the feet.This may be a tradition, but not one that is widely followed. There were only two or three people at a time politely awaiting their turn to stand directly upon the metal disc, upon the belly button of the church, the sacred omphalos. Everyone else had their minds on candles.
By the time I took my turn on the bronze disc, Sandro had forced Jen to take him outside to the calle of balloons and sweets--he'd had his mind on nothing else since I picked him up from school.
As 6 pm approached the wind became biting and rain began to fall, as it seems it must on this day--at least each of the three times we've celebrated it. It wasn't a bad thing, as waiting at home to warm us up this year was the castradina whose preparation I wrote about in my last post.
Of course our butchers didn't dwell upon the digestive dangers of castradina as they told me how to prepare it, only advised me to follow the recipe carefully. And having done so, it was not at all pesante. Sandro didn't like it as soup--I think the verza (savoy cabbage) put him off--but he loved the meat once it had been removed from the broth. Jen liked the soup a lot, as did I. I'm no "foodie", nor a food writer, so I can only say I was surprised by the sweetness of the verza, like faint glimmers of Tiepolo's pale pinkish yellow in the dark smoky atmosphere of the mutton. You see, even in the finished soup I still tasted somehow the spiced smokiness of church incense I'd smelled in the castradina before cooking--something which sounds entirely unappetizing to anyone else (such as Jen), but which seems appropriately sacramental to me in a dish eaten only once a year and three days in the making.
For more on castradina and how one goes about preparing it, see: http://veneziablog.blogspot.it/2013/11/a-ritual-dish-for-la-festa-della.html