City of Spectacle: Studying the Events of Venice in Duke University’s Visualizing Cities Lab

Under the guidance of Dr. Kristin Huffman, Team Venice began the semester by reading “Jacopo Sansovino, Giacomo Torelli, and the Theatricality of the Piazzetta in Venice” (Johnson 2000).[1] With this baseline understanding of the infrastructure and ideologies that support numerous displays of spectacular devotion or celebration, we then discussed specific events that take place in the city. Venice hosts many spectacles annually, and our project team members decided to each study our own spectacles to better cover the theatrical events. I chose to study Festa della Madonna della Salute and the Santa Maria della Salute basilica. Given the state of the coronavirus pandemic in the fall of 2021, I wanted to study how Venetians responded to the 1630 plague epidemic in their city.

Santa Maria della Salute was conceived of as a dedication to the Virgin Mary in her role as a protector of health. During the Venetian plague epidemic of 1630-1632, approximately one-third of the population perished. After a few months battling the plague, the Venetian Senate grasped for relief in fall of 1630; they opted to hold a competition to select the architect who would receive the commission to build the new church. Baldassare Longhena was selected, and construction began in 1631. (The church would not be fully completed for another 50 years, in 1681.) The Senate also decreed that it would process from Piazza San Marco on a pontoon bridge across the Grand Canal to the new church that was to be located at Punta della Dogana (between the Grand Canal and the Giudecca Canal) on the date of the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin (November 21). The bridge was planned to be a temporary addition to the cityscape every year, constructed solely for the Festa della Madonna della Salute procession on November 21. Longhena’s Baroque basilica is an octagonal structure with a central plan, two domes (though one is significantly more prominent), and a façade richly decorated in composite and Corinthian orders. The façade faces the Grand Canal. Processionals cross the Grand Canal toward the basilica’s portal entrance.[2]

I searched for paintings and photographs that capture the Salute procession, pontoon bridge, basilica, and the view of Longhena’s domes from the Grand Canal entrance. I then added a few key images to Team Venice’s Omeka site; each image captures the monumental, imposing nature of Salute at Punta della Dogana.

Team Venice created a Neatline map to plot the locations of our spectacles, processions, and/or churches on the Venetian cityscape. With help from Hannah Jacobs, we integrated the georeferenced and stitched Lodovico Ughi map of Venice (1729) as our basemap. The Venice Neatline was a shared project for the team. Each team member added a point corresponding to their researched spectacle, and Dr. Huffman wrote an introduction that we placed as a feature at the entrance to the Grand Canal. I added a point at Salute that embeds an image of the Festa della Madonna della Salute procession and a description of the basilica and procession.

Looking ahead, Team Venice can continue adding images to our Omeka site, points on our Neatline map, and contextualizing descriptions that distill the threaticalities and spatialities of Venetian spectacle. For Festa della Madonna della Salute, my next steps will be to add a point with images at Piazza San Marco and points along the route of the ephemeral pontoon bridge to visualize the procession that takes place on November 21. These additional points would correspond to additional images and text descriptions in the team’s Omeka site. We also discussed exploring platforms that would support a virtual “tour” of Venice along the Grand Canal, with tour stops at our spectacle sites. This tour would be an introductory video on our Omeka site and a guide through our Neatline. In future semesters, we can explore Google Earth to create such a feature with imagery of the city.Team Venice is certainly well-positioned to take this project in new directions going forward, as our Omeka site houses helpful metadata about our images and spectacle descriptions written by team members.

[1] Eugene J. Johnson, “Jacopo Sansovino, Giacomo Torelli, and the Theatricality of the Piazzetta in Venice,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 59, No. 4 (Dec., 2000), 436-453.

[2] Andrew Hopkins, “Plans and Planning for S. Maria Della Salute, Venice,” The Art Bulletin 79, No. 3 (1997), 440-465.