When the Biennale meets the Festa del Redentore…

©Kate Butler
©Kate Butler, 2015

Our stay in Venice has happily coincided with the Festa del Redentore – a weekend long festival that has been held in Venice since 1577.
In 1576, Venice was hit by a brutal plague that killed 50,000 people. To mark the end of the plague, the Venetians held a feast on the day of the Feast of the Most Holy Redeemer – i.e. the third Sunday of July.
Also, as promised if the plague ended, the Doge of Venice, Alvise I Mocenigo, commissioned a new church to be built on the island of Giudecca. The church, known as Il Redentore, was completed in 1592. Since the consecration of the church, the feast has grown into a weekend long festival that also includes the building of a temporary bridge using barges to the island of Giudecca for pilgrims to cross.
Venetians have continued this tradition every year, starting with the opening of the bridge on Saturday afternoon, followed by an impressive fireworks display Saturday evening. On the Sunday, festival goers can enjoy various gondola regattas before attending mass at Il Redentore.
Bearing witness to this festival as a tourist and foreigner, having no background knowledge, is an odd experience. On the Saturday, as I and my fellow volunteers were walking through Venice, we saw innumerable locals setting up and preparing for the evening’s festivities.

©Kate Butler, 2015
©Kate Butler, 2015

Swathes of tables are laid out, facing the bay, decorated with bunting, and countless others crammed onto yachts so they could celebrate the festival on board, dropping anchor in the middle of the bay (I came across a helpful little map detailing where and where not boat owners could moor their boats).
I was amazed by the amount of effort Venetians, and tourists alike, made to celebrate the ending of a plague that occurred over 400 years ago. I image for the hundreds of tourists who coincidently found themselves caught up in the excitement, probably had no idea of the significance behind the tradition. I imagine it’s also pretty difficult for the locals to grasp some sort of historical significance. I do not doubt the cultural significance Venetians hold on this annual tradition, but I can’t help wonder, that the more distance put between 1577 and the present day, does meaning weaken?
I cannot doubt that the fireworks were enjoyable and the electric atmosphere was contagious, but it’s easy to get caught in the commotion without understanding what’s really going on. It made me think of our own traditions, for example, Guy Fawkes Night. We celebrate the failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605 every year, and yes, we are taught the background of this tradition as youngsters throughout school, but how much can we really appreciate what happened so long ago?
Unfortunately, as time goes on, I cynically believe we use these traditions as excuses to party; and if we’re going to abuse these traditions as such, then we should also take responsibility to educate. It would be a sad time if historical and cultural context was lost to partying.
I feel this also relates to Doug Fishbone’s Leisure Land Golf. Each artwork commissioned has a meaning, and whilst many visitors to the pavilion do take the time to read the descriptions accompanying each hole, there’s also just as many visitors who overlook the meanings in favour for a game of golf and a bit of fun. Maybe that is what Fishbone was attempting to say – a cultural commentary on society’s hunger for meaningless fun, brushing aside what lies beneath. It’s a real shame though, for the individual artists who have taken the time to research and design a hole for the pavilion.
Or maybe I should try to not be so cynical.

Kate Butler


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