Light up the Sky: Il Redentore Festival

Despite its origins in a terrible period of Venetian history, Il Redentore is a spectacular celebration that takes place in the city each July

Words by Sara Scarpa. Images by Iain Reid 

Venice Redentore Festival

Most years, on the afternoon of the third Saturday of July, my friends and I prepare for a fantastic event. We set up coloured balloons and paper lanterns on a friend’s wide, flat boat, which is normally used to transport fruit and vegetables. Certainly, it does not sound like an exciting “venue” for a party, but for me, my family, and friends it truly is magical. It is tradition for us Venetians, on this day, to decorate our boat and, as a duty, we must do this in order to keep our tradition alive. The boats, all originally used to transport goods, are just perfect for this occasion as here you can comfortably fit many friends, and sometimes even a temporary dinner table.

Every summer thousands of people wait impatiently for this event. The Festa del Redentore (the Feast of the Redeemer) is a celebration the Venetians are particularly fond of. Ever since I was a child, I have looked forward to this event and even now, despite living in London, I always try to make sure my holiday will coincide with this celebration. On the boat, we are always surrounded by cool-bags filled with food and drinks – and lots of it. Everyone has a task: the women prepare sarde in saor, bigoli in salsa (a pasta dish made with onion and anchovies) and tiramisù; and the men fill the bags with Aperol, wine and prosecco. All the food is usually homemade, following closely guarded recipes.

Fireworks Venice Festival il redentore

It is important to get everything ready and everybody on board before it is too late. You have to reach the closest spot to the Giudecca and the Punta della Dogana – where the fireworks’ platform is located – if you want to get the best vantage point to enjoy the show. Likewise, even if you are joining the party on an island it is highly recommended to get there early and pack a big Italian picnic. Every year the same scene repeats itself: boats of different shapes and sizes try to get as close as possible to the temporary pontoon bridge which connects the Zattere with the Chiesa del Redentore on the Giudecca island. Hundreds of boats gather in a flotilla of picnics and happiness!

Some years, if I was not on a boat, I watched the fireworks from the riva (embankment) on the Giudecca, which is also a great location. The Riva degli Schiavoni, San Marco and the Zattere all good. But if you want a place on the embankment you have to get there early in the morning and bring your table. Some young people just bring towels or anything to mark their space on the pavement. In the evening it gets extremely crowded, so much so, that it is almost impossible to walk from one spot to the other. At 11.30pm the awaited show starts. The fireworks last for about forty minutes and are set against an enchanting background. The Venetian lagoon, the Bacino di San Marco with the Doges’ Palace and the Piazzetta, the two Palladian churches (San Giorgio and the Redentore) and the Punta della Dogana are all dreamy backdrops for the fireworks. Their shimmering reflections on the dark waters of the lagoon compose an incredible picture. In front of this enchanting set, everybody, from kids to adults, visitors to Venetians, is mesmerised. You really need to be there; the beauty is almost impossible to describe with words and even though I have seen it many times, every time for me is an incredible experience.

Fireworks Il Redentore festival Venice Italy

If you have managed to get really close to the fireworks platform you will not only see the show, you will feel it as well. Many pieces of ashes from the exploded rockets will drift down towards your face while you are looking up. During those forty minutes the fireworks just get better and better until the last few minutes of the grand finale when the sky is completely filled with colour and Venice seems to be on fire.

Three loud bangs close the fireworks display and open everybody’s topic for conversation for the next few days – how good the fireworks have been, or how much better they have been compared to those of previous years. After the fireworks display, young people usually go to the Lido for a nocturnal swim and wait for the sunrise. If you go to the beach the following morning you will see some young people still sleeping on deckchairs. You might also find the remains of the watermelons that they had buried under the wet sand to keep them cool for their snack at sunrise and, more often, quite a few empty bottles of prosecco lying around on the sand…

Venice fireworks

But for those who did not opt to stay up all night, the Sunday morning starts with an early Mass in the Church of the Redeemer, followed by the traditional colourful regatta. This show, with the eating and drinking together al fresco in a communal space, again maintains tradition and is one of the things that keeps Venice alive and real.

This is the true Venice and not the nature morte and the Disneyland caricature that is often portrayed to tourists. When I was a child, there used to be so many boats that the lagoon between Saint Mark’s basin, Punta della Dogana and the Giudecca was completely covered and you could almost have walked from one side to the other just by stepping from one boat to the next. Today it is a different scene and many of
the typical Venetian boats have been replaced by larger, anonymous boats with no decorations. Fortunately, however, many Venetians still resist. Fingers crossed
the Redentore will never come to an end and people will continue to decorate their boats with pretty coloured paper lanterns for everyone to enjoy while they sit together eating and chatting and watching the show for many years to come!

For more Venice and Veneto travel inspiration, Italia!’s Guide is a great place to start planning your trip.