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Customs and Traditions
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The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day about 1740, by Canaletto.

Festa della Sensa
(Spozalizio del Mar - Marriage of the Sea)

The "Festa della Sensa", commonly referred to as the "Marriage of the Sea" (Sposalizio del Mar), sometimes as the "Marriage of the Adriatic", is a traditional desponsatio (marriage) with the sea on Ascension Day, the Thursday in the sixth week following Easter Sunday.

Established on May 9, 1000 to symbolize the maritime dominion of Venice, it commemorated Doge Orseolo II's conquest of Dalmatia over the invasions by Slavs. It was originally a simple and solemn procession of supplication and placation on the sensa (Ascension Day), the day that the doge had set out on his expedition to attack the Dalmatian pirates who were threatening the Istrian coast. The ceremony was headed by the ducal galley and followed by a fleet of boats to the entrance of the port at the Lido, where the Bishop of Olivolo (Castello) blessed the waters of the Sea in peace and gratitude. Arriving off the island, the Doge first poured holy water into the sea. A prayer was offered that "for us and all who sail thereon the sea may be calm and quiet," whereupon the Doge and the others were solemnly aspersed with holy water, the rest of which was thrown into the sea while the priests chanted "Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean." Solemn mass was then attended by all the celebrants and spectatiors at the church of St. Nicholas on the isle of Lido, and the festivities were rounded out to an epicurian end by a sumptuous banquet at the ducal palace.

When the same anniversary was used to also remember successive important diplomatic triumphs, the event became more complex and full of pomp and grandeur which, after the invention of gunpowder, added a salute of gunfire as the signal for the gondolas and their train to start from St. Mark's Square. In 1177, Pope Alexander III added a sacramental character to the ceremony in return for services rendered by Venice in the struggle against the emperor Frederick I (Frederick Barbarossa). The Pontiff commemorated a great navel victory won by the Venetians over Frederick I's hostile fleet in Istria, which helped to bring about peace with the Papal States. 

The ceremony retained the form of a procession headed by the doge's maestà nave (state gondola or barge), after 1311 identified as the Bucintoro (Bucentaur), which was manned by forty rowers and gorgeously appointed. They left Piazza San Marco and proceeded slowly towards the isle of Lido. Following in the wake of the state barge came gondolas, barges, sailing-vessels, and galleys, occupied by the signoria (persons of rank), with minstrels and other attendants. Pope Alexander III's token of appreciation was incorporated into the ceremony. As he gave Doge Vitale Michieli II a blessed ring from his own finger, he instructed the Doge and his successors to cast a similar ring into the bosom of the Adriatic on every coming Ascension Day, promising that the bride so espoused should be as dutiful as a wife to her husband. From then on the ceremony, instead of being placatory and expiatory, became a nuptial pageant. Every year the Doge dropped a consecrated ring into the sea with the words Desponsamus te, mare! in signum veri perpetuique dominii ("We espouse thee, O Sea! in token of our just and perpetual dominion"). The Pontiff then granted indulgences to all who visited the "Ducal Chapel" (the Basilica of San Marco), in the eight days (later 15 days) following the celebration.

The venetian character, inclined to combine the sacred with the profane, in 1180 initiated the "Fair of the Sensa", with displays of the best local handmade products, and merchandise from the Orient. At first the fair was organized on wooden boats, but later it was guested in St. Mark´s Square. In 1534, the architect Sansovino was commissioned to build an enclosure of woodden shops, to be setted up in St. Mark´s square during those days of the feast.  In 1777, the enclosure was transformed by the architect, Bernardino Maccaruzzi, into a grand edifice of wood in the form of an ellipse, divided into four sections and with a double portico. Thus, the "Fair of the Sensa" rapidly became one of the major European exhibitions.

Charles Vacher (1818-83), one of three Venetian scenes exhibited in 1848 by the artist at the New Watercolour Society of The fête of the Marriage of the Adriatic, Venice.

The 1729 Ascension Day was officially recorded with the issue of an osella (a commemorative gold or silver medal) and accompanied by sonnets and supplications that praised its splendour, such as that by Antonio Maria Luchini entitled: La nuova regina sull'acque. We can imagine the Bucintoro by observing the paintings of Guardi, Canaletto, and the other veduta painters, when under the rhythmic rowing of its 42 oars, with its sculptures gleaming in gold, majestically advancing along the Riva degli schiavoni, to the flapping of its large silk banner in the wind and the thundering artillery of its escort ships: then we can understand and justify the pride and enthusiasm of its contemporaries.

The upper deck being level with the fort of Sant'Andrea, the Bucintoro halted there while the Doge, through a panel in the back of his throne, threw a gold ring into the water, uttering the centuries-old ritual Latin phrase (see above).

The yearly marriage of the Adriatic was more immediately and palpably a pageant and a symbol; but it has been rendered apparent that the ceremony involved and denoted a political principle, on which the Republic was prepared nearly down to the last, to insist at all hazards against all corners. Germany, France, Spain, England, were in turn reminded of the claim, which the unique wedding imported, in language which could not be misunderstood.

The following is an unnamed media article from the late 1800s:

The most ridiculous, though perhaps the most pompous, show in the world is that of the annual ceremony of the Doge's marrying the sea. It is said to have taken its rise from a grant of Pope Alexander III., who, as a reward for the zeal of the inhabitants in his restoration to the Papal chair, gave them power over the Adriatic ocean, as a man hath power over his wife; in memory of which the chief magistrate annually throws a ring into it, with these words: "Desponsamus te, Mare, in signum perpetui dominii"—"We espouse thee, O Sea, in testimony of our perpetual dominion over thee."

Venice, June to: The ceremony of wedding the Adriatic was the most magnificent ever seen here in the course of the present century; there were more than a hundred gondolas on the water on this occasion, which, with the men-of-war, etc., made a most splendid appearance.

Among the festivals of Venice may be numbered the celebrated Marriage of the Sea, which is thus described:

"Its numerous festivals rendered Venice one of the most interesting cities in the universe. Amongst others, there were those of Santa Marta, San Rocco, il Redentore, la Saluta, San Marco, Corpus Domini, and the Assenzione; on the latter of which days the Doge used to go to Lido, a small island two miles from Venice, near the entrance of the Adriatic, for the purpose of espousing that sea, in the Bucentoro, a vessel some-what resembling the ancient Greek and Roman galleys. It was richly carved, and covered with fine gold in basso relievo, lined with the richest crimson silk-velvet, trimmed with gold fringe and tassels, and furnished in the most elegant and costly manner, with beautiful Venetian mirrors, crystal-cut ornaments, large pier-glass windows, with Venetian blinds and crimson silk curtains. It used to be towed out by a number of the barcajouoli, richly dressed in the ancient Venetian costume, with caps and sashes of different colours, all bearing the Doge's livery. The Doge was habited in his ducal robes, his coronet, and the other insignia of his high office. The whole body of the senators, with their wives and families, magnificently attired, joined the procession in gondolas, together with all the foreign ministers, and often a hundred thousand persons, coming not only from the Terra Firma, but from the extremity of Italy, and even of Europe ; so that the water, from the ducal palace of the Piazetta to Lido, was actually covered with boats, filled with youth and beauty, in all their most seductive shapes and appearances, forming an entire carpet of boats of all descriptions; besides peottis, in the shape of ancient temples and triumphal cars, representing the courts of Jupiter, Venus, Mars, Bacchus, Apollo, together with Neptune, and the rest of the marine deities ; so that it was scarcely possible to discover a foot of water. The ceremony was called the `Marriage of the Sea.' The Doge, on his arrival at the mouth of the harbour, came on deck, and, being surrounded by the Senate, he took from his finger a gold ring, and, throwing it into the sea, he pronounced these words: `Desponsamus te, Mare! in signum veri perpetuique dominii;' that is, `We espouse thee, O Sea! in token of real and perpetual dominion.' The Doge and Senate then returned in the same order to the ducal palace, where a sumptuous banquet was prepared, consisting of all the delicacies of the season ; and at the close of which each senator was presented with a large tray, or basket, filled with the choicest fruits and sweetmeats, to take hume to his family. This was indeed a day of festivity and triumph for the Venetians, and turned out highly lucrative to all classes of the inhabitants." [Catherine de Govion Broglio Solari, Venice under the Yoke of France and Austria, G. and W.B. Wittaker (London, 1824), p. 242-4.]

The Festa of the Sensa continues today, albeit in a much smaller fashion and without the Bucintoro which was destroyed by Napoleon. On Ascension Day the Mayor of Venice, aboard another galley, the "Bissona Serenissima" (used in the parade of the Regata Storica on the first Sunday of September, which took place for the first time on January 10, 1315 under the rule of the doge Giovanni Soranzo), flanked by other boats from the Venetian Rowing Societies, moves to the mouth of the port of San Nicolò, near the Lido. There, he throws the gold ring into the waters to symbolize the eternal union between Venice and the Sea. In some years - but infrequently - the Fiera of the Sensa is set up again using the same painted enclosures that can be seen during Carnival in campo Santo Stefano.

Commemorative Paintings (under construction)

Sources:

  • Text - Curiosities of popular customs and of rites, ceremonies, observances, and miscellaneous antiquities, J.B. Lippincott Co. (1897), p. 10
  • Text - http://www.1911encyclopedia.org
  • Text - http://www.webjewels.it/Bucentaurs.html
  • http://www.oldandsold.com/articles07/venice-33.shtmlml
  • http://www.allposters.com/-sp/-Posters_i138009_.htm
  • http://www.reprodart.com/a/canaletto-eigentl-giovann/the-bucintoro-returning-t-1.html
  • http://www.venice-views.com/flashcarte/venise-peint-25.html
  • http://www.marinekameradschaft-muenchen.de/bucentaur.htm
  • http://gallery.euroweb.hu/html/g/guardi/francesc/2/guard217.html
  • http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/
  • Article - http://www.oldandsold.com/articles31n/lore-34.shtml
  • http://venicexplorer.net/tradizione/sensa.php?hlangs=en

See also:

  • Der bayerische BUCENTAUR und seine Begleitflotte auf dem Starnberger See - http://www.marinekameradschaft-muenchen.de/bucentaur.htm (Deutsch)

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Created: Friday, July 06, 2007; Last updated: Monday, September 26, 2011
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