Venice’s Festa della Sensa on May 7-8 2016 symbolises the city’s changing environmental, political, economic, religious and military relationships
Venice’s Festa della Sensa will be held on 7-8 May 2016. Sensa is Venetian for Ascension referring to the Ascension of Christ. Yet Ascension Day (40 days after Easter) in Venice also celebrates the ceremony of Spozalizio del Mare (Marriage to the Sea). The changing role of this ceremony symbolizes Venice’s changing environmental, military, political, religious and economic relationships. This blog post provides some historical and current insights into some key moments in the evolution of the event.
The ceremony of Spozalizio del Mare (Marriage to the Sea) was when the city’s leader, or doge, married the sea. The Marriage to the Sea ceremony was held annually on Ascension Day and commemorated an expedition down the Dalmatian coast in approximately the year 1000, which achieved Venetian control of the northern Adriatic Sea. At first, the ceremony included a short and simple prayer; in subsequent years, it was made grander to express the domination of the Republic over the sea. “The essential political point, then, was that in marrying the sea the doge established his legitimate rights of domination over trade routes and over the lands lapped by the waters of the Adriatic,” writes Muir (1981, 124). The doge rode out on his spectacular Bucintoro (Bucentaur) galley to the Lido lagoon inlet, where he dropped a golden ring overboard, saying “We espouse thee, O Sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion” (Muir 1981, 120).
According to Christian mythology, the ceremony received the personal blessing of the Pope and this helped to develop the original expedition commemoration. Crouzet-Pavan (2002) explains: “During the thirteenth century, after the conquests of the Fourth Crusade, the rite of wedding the sea was grafted onto it. The doge threw into the sea a gold ring like the one Pope Alexander III was supposed to have given the doge, and by that gesture he wedded the sea and renewed Venetian privileges…later, the doge’s wedding to the Adriatic became the central ritual” (Crouzet-Pavan 2002, 48).
Norwich (1983, 116) documents the lack of historical evidence that Pope Alexander III offered this ring. Nevertheless, the myth of the Pope’s role cemented the Christian foundations of the ceremony and fortified the image of Venetian maritime superiority. Eglin (2001, 172) refers to Jacopo Sannazaro’s comments on the “god-built” city of Venice, standing in the Adriatic waves and giving law to the whole sea. The Christian character of the ceremony was also emphasized by its occurrence on whichever day Ascension Day fell and by paying homage to St Nicholas. Norwich (1983, 116) notes that it is reasonably safe to assume that the Pope did attend the ceremony in 1177, alongside German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, but there is no indication the Pope actively participated in events. This ceremony of 1177 helped establish Venice as the naval centre of Christian Europe, with the doge as the peacemaker between the Pope and Barbarossa. “Throughout that memorable summer, [Venice] was the focus of attention of the whole of Europe – the capital, in a very real sense, of Christendom. Her Doge was playing host to the two leaders of the Western world,” writes Norwich (1983, 116-7).
Venetians celebrated their relationship with the seas during the Marriage to the Sea ceremony, which expressed their dominance over the sea and wider sense of power. Dominating the seas enabled Venice to become Europe’s financial and trading centre. By the end of the fourteenth century there was scarcely a single major commodity that was not largely transported in Venetian ships (Norwich 1983, 270-1). Venice became necessary to all European lands active in trade during the fifteenth century. The city was at the heart of Christian Europe, with its Rialto commercial district relying heavily on overseas connections. “The Venetians had made themselves masters of ‘the gold of the Christians’ because all of Europe was directly or indirectly supplied from there,” writes Crouzet-Pavan (2002, 154).
By the sixteenth century, the Marriage to the Sea ceremony had become the most significant date in the Venetian state’s calendar. In this period, Venetians positively sought to welcome tourists. The Sensa initiated a 15-day fair that attracted foreign visitors and large crowds. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ceremony also inaugurated the Venetian theatre season that ran into July. However, perceptions of Venice’s relationship to the sea changed as other powers challenged its maritime domination. Other port cities performed marriage to the sea rituals, such as the ancient Roman city of Ravenna, just down the coast. From 1446, the Archbishop of Ravenna married the city to the sea at the village of Cervia with his pastoral ring. But it was the Turkish and European powers who confronted Venice’s real supremacy over the eastern seas. In 1499, Venice suffered humiliating military defeats in the waters off Sapienza to the Turks, who sailed on to take the key location of Lepanto. This forced the Venetian Republic’s marriage to the sea onto rocky ground, as the Ottoman Empire challenged the Republic’s military domination of eastern oceans. In 1500, a message was sent from the Turkish Vizir to the Venetian Signoria governors: “Tell the Signoria that they have done with wedding the sea; it is our turn now” (cited in Norwich 1983, 383).
Yet Venice’s Marriage to the Sea was not stopped until the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 to Napoleon’s forces. The Bucintoro barge, from which the doge had performed the Marriage to the Sea, was ceremoniously burned by the French over three days in full view of Venetians; after which the French temporarily dismantled Venice’s mighty shipbuilding industry at the Arsenal. Symbolically and practically, Venice was no longer married to the sea.
Soon afterwards Lord Byron wrote:
The spouseless Adriatic mourns her lord;
And, annual marriage no more renew’d,
The Bucentaur lies rotting unrestored,
Neglected garment of her widowhood!
(Byron 2008, 151)
The fall of the Venetian Republic after approximately a thousand years of existence came as a big shock to Venetians and many people worldwide. It meant that Venice’s constitution was replaced by French governance. Venice’s constitution had been uniquely based on a balance of powers between the doge, Senate and Great Council and had enabled relatively harmonious rule compared with other Italian city states and the rest of Europe. The sense of loss of harmony and constitutional balance was combined with various physical changes introduced under French rule, including widening the inlets between the sea and the lagoon, destroying religious buildings and constructing a park and cemetery. Many Venetians have commented that this was the period when Venice’s equilibrium between the city and its waters fundamentally changed. These sentiments were more reflective of the impact of the fall of the Venetian Republic and the change of governance than physical alterations. Moreover, the cancellation of the Marriage to the Sea ceremony and the burning of the Bucintoro barge reinforced the sense that Venice was no longer in harmony with its watery environment.
The contemporary ceremony began in 1965 and is now focused on boating and various regattas. However, the city’s Mayor and various other important local people still go out to the Lido by boat, in a similar manner to previous Venetian doges. Many gondolas and other vessels also accompany them. The Marriage to the Sea takes place at the church of San Nicolò on the Lido and the Mayor still throws a golden wedding ring into the water. There are many regatta races and prizes are awarded at San Nicolò and there are also awards running into the evening.
Although the event still symbolises the Marriage to the Sea and has a Christian location at the church of San Nicolò, the event has become more focused on the regattas and the pomp and ceremony of the boats and costumes. Perhaps it is even more significant that the Venetians taking part create a spectacle for tourists that symbolises the modern reputation of Venice as a contemporary tourist attraction.
An outline of the program of events is listed below and here is a link to the city council website for the event in English:
SATURDAY MAY 7TH
Venezia, Palazzo Ducale – Sala dello Scrutinio (admission at invitation)
Gemellaggio Adriatico with City of Florence (Adriatic Twinning)
Prize “Osella d’oro della Sensa 2016”
SUNDAY MAY 8TH
Festa della Sensa Water Parade
9.00am – Boats gather in the Basin of San Marco, near the Salute
9.30am – Departure of the water parade towards S. Nicolò di Lido
10.30am – Ceremony of the “Wedding with the Sea” in front of the Church of S. Nicolò di Lido
11.00am – Concert by Choir of the Serenissima in front of the curch San Nicolò di Lido
11.30am – Holy Mass at the church of S. Nicolò di Lido
Regattas of the Festa della Sensa
4.45pm – Under 25 rowers’ twin-oared pupparini regatta
5.00pm – Women’s twin-oared mascarete regatta
5.45pm – Regatta on 4 oar gondolas
Course of the parade and regattas
The parade rows from the Basin of San Marco to the Riviera of St. Nicolò, where the prize-giving takes place
Good viewing spots
Starting point – Ponte della Dogna, near the Salute
As the parade sails by – along the Riva degli Schiavoni water front, near the Arsenale waterbus stop
Marriage with the sea – Along the waterfront near San Nicolò di Lido
Start point – Along the Riva degli Schiavoni near Arsenale or along the waterfront of the gardens on Sant’Elena
Finishing point – in front of San Nicolò di Lido.
From San Marco, Zaccharia or Arsenale take Line 1 to the Lido stop, followed by Line 8 to San Nicolò. A quick 5 minute walk along the front brings you to the church of San Nicolò. (Turn left out of the waterbus stop).
Byron, Lord George Gordon. 2008. The Major Works. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press.
Crouzet-Pavan, Elisabeth. 2002. Venice Triumphant: The Horizons of a Myth. Maryland: John Hopkins University Press.
Eglin, John. 2001. Venice Transfigured: The Myth of Venice in British Culture, 1660-1797. New York: Palgrave.
Muir, Edward. 1981. Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Norwich, John Julius. 1983. A History of Venice. London: Penguin.