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La Sensa

The Marriage to the Sea

Francesco Guardi's Doge on the Bucintoro

The name comes from Ascension Day, a movable feast celebrating Christ's ascent into heaven that takes place 40 days after Easter. For 795 years of Venetian history, however, La Sensa meant much more: it was Venice’s own symbolic apotheosis as the husband, lord, and master of the sea.

It was on Ascension Day in the year 1000 when Doge Pietro Orseolo II began his campaign against the Dalmatians – Venice’s first foreign conquest and the source of immense civic pride. Whatever ceremony ensued was given a boost by Pope Alexander III in 1177, who gave the doge a ring in gratitude for his help in securing the submission of Emperor Barbarossa: ‘Let posterity remember that the sea is yours by right of conquest, subject to you as a wife to her husband,’ said the Pope.

What really got under the skin of Venice’s many rivals was her joyously excessive arrogance, much of it concentrated in La Sensa, an astute mix of politics and religion and trade fair that followed the city’s maxim: prima di tutto Veneziani, poi Cristiani (Venetians first of all, and Christians second).

The day began with the procession of the Arsenale workers from the church of San Martino to the Piazzetta San Marco, where the ceremonial ducal barge, the Bucintoro (or Bucentaur) waited. There the Arsenalotti would be joined by the doge, playing his usual role as high priest, accompanied by his insignia – eight banners, six long silver trumpets and an umbrella (gifts from Pope Alexander III). Along with these and his retinue he would board the Bucintoro and be rowed out into the lagoon, accompanied by a fleet of other vessels, all lavishly decorated with carpets, garlands, banners and flowers.

At the church of Sant’Elena, the doge would meet the ship of the Patriarch and Papal Nuncio and sail to the port of San Nicolò al Lido, where the choir of St Mark’s would sing as the Patriarch boarded the Bucintoro to sail to the lighthouse. Here he would bless the Serenissima and pour holy water into the sea (the benedictio), after which the doge would toss a golden wedding ring into the waves (the Deponsatio), declaring:

With this, we wed thee, O Sea, in sign of our true and perpetual dominion.

This was the most exciting part of the festival, not only because horns would blast and bells would peal and everyone cheered, but because the Bucintoro was so flimsy that there was always a chance of the doge falling in the sea.

Afterwards the doge would visit the chapel of San Nicolò to pay homage to the relics of the patron of the sea, then preside over two banquets that the public was invited to watch.

The Marriage to the Sea was only the beginning of the festivities. Everyone would dress in their finery for the opening of the Sensa fair in Piazza San Marco – a market that lasted for a week (later, 15 days), where the latest silks and spices from the East would be displayed, along with the finest things the city could make, from glass and gold to works of art – Canova’s Orpheus and Eurydice was first shown in the Sensa fair of 1778.

Most important was a large tyrannical doll called the ‘Piavola de Franza’ dressed in the latest French fashions, who determined what Venetian women would wear during the next season. A crucial feature of La Sensa’s success was the liberty to wear masks. And at midnight, candle-lit orchestras playing love songs floated down the Grand Canal.

Today Venice re-enacts La Sensa, although it doesn't (yet) attract quite the crowds that it used to. The Mayor plays the role of the doge, and the ring has been replaced by a wreath.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Image by PD Art