Ask any Venetian. The best party in Venice isn’t Carnival; it’s the 440-year-old Festa del Redentore. Every year a remarkable 25,000 fireworks explode over Serenissima, as locals take to boats and reclaim their canals. But this festival has a dark and dreadful past, one which led to a surprising Italian innovation.

LIFE Photo Collection

Venice, 1575

The extraordinary story of the Festa del Redentore begins with the ordinary black rat. These seemingly harmless rodents arrived in Venice on one of the Republic’s many merchant galleys. But instead of bringing exotic spices from faraway lands, they brought something much more sinister. The plague.

The Grand Tour of Italy - Festa del Redentore: Redemption From the PlagueYouth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO

Isola del Lazaretto Nuovo (1778/1779) by Francesco TironiNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Pioneering Risk Management

There are many lazaretto hospitals around the world, but Venice built the first. It is one of the earliest examples of risk management. In fact, the word “quarantine” also comes from this time.These godforsaken places don’t show up on the average tourist map. But come with us, if you dare, for a rare walk inside...

The Main Entrance and Staff Building
The View of the Lazzaretto Vecchio
A Quarantine Station

Med Pers Doctors ErLIFE Photo Collection

The Plague Doctors

Today we associate the fearful mask of the plague doctor with death. But actually, these dark figures were the superheroes of their day. Their costume was like an early hazmat suit, with long beaks filled with aromatic herbs which were thought to ward off disease by purifying the air.

The Promise of Redentore

Venice ultimately saved itself from the plague—by putting in place an innovative quarantine strategy. But at the time the credit was given to Christ the Redeemer.To thank God for deliverance from plague, Republic of Venice made true on their promise to build a church: Il Redentore.

Veduta del Prospetto della Chiesa del SS. Redentore (1742) by Fabio Berardi after CanalettoNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

A Palladian Masterpiece

The church of Redentore was designed in 1577 by one of Italy’s most influential architects of all, Andrea Palladio.

Palladian architecture features Roman and Greek styles. For nearly 500 years it has inspired architects around the world.

The location of the church on an island in the Giudecca canal means that to reach it you must cross the water, a symbolic religious ritual.

Crossing the Votive Bridge

In 1577, the city of Venice held a religious procession on a bridge of boats to arrive at the Giudecca island and lay the foundation stone of Il Redentore. Ever since, the same tradition has been repeated in pretty much the same way. This is now one of the most important events of the modern festival.

Festa del Redentore 2016Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO

The Redentore Procession Today

Venetians continue to construct the temporary bridge every year during the festival, and take part in the historic and symbolic crossing to the church of Redentore.

Il ponte del Redentore a Venezia.Istituto Luce Cinecittà

A Bridge to the Past

Watch the construction of the bridge in 1951.

Festa del Redentore 2016Youth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO

The Light Shines On

From unspeakable darkness, the people of Venice created an innovative risk management strategy, a magnificent church, and a powerful celebration of life that lives on today. And it doesn’t end there. A modern Redentore tradition has been added. As day turns to night, the people come together to enjoy the most anticipated event of all: the fireworks.

Grand Tour: Time Lapse Grand CanalYouth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO

The Grand Tour of Italy - Festa del Redentore: Inside the Famous Fireworks 360ºYouth Committee of the Italian National Commission for UNESCO

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