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Special Deliverance

Celebrating the end of a plague with candles, balloons and a pricey bowl of peasant food

Author Mike Howard Illustration Peter Oumanski

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VENICE—Restaurant manager Michael Manca is courteous but unapologetic as he personally delivers an $80 bowl of mutton stew to a table in the corner. After all, this is Harry’s Bar—home of the $20 Bellini.

Today is Festa della Madonna della Salute, or the Feast of Our Lady of Health, a day commemorating divine intervention during the plague of 1630–1631. The dish being served is castradina in brodo cole foglie di verza—castrated mutton with soup and cabbage leaves—which was starvation rations during the plague years.

Manca has been manager at Harry’s for only a few months, but he knows Venice, and he knows which of the city’s many festivals he prefers. “The Festa del Redentore [Feast of the Redeemer] dates from the plague years too, but now it’s more about boat parties and fireworks,” he says. “Carnevale really dates from the 1980s, and targets tourists. But the Festa della Madonna della Salute is traditional—more pious, more pure.”

Two hundred yards west of the restaurant, well-dressed penitents crowd onto the temporary bridge spanning the Grand Canal in front of the imposing Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. Families crossing to the church carry votive candles. Those returning bring balloons and festive foods, to be handed out to children as treats.

A mink-coated matron pauses by a street vendor and hesitates over an array of candles, which range in length from 12 to 36 inches. She smiles at a young boy who’s clutching his mother with one hand and an enormous Venetian lion balloon with the other, then she purchases a yard-long taper and joins the stream of people heading over the water to give thanks.

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