On May 11th and 12th, Venice, the enchanting city known for its canals and gondolas, will pay homage to its illustrious past with its very own Festa della Sensa.
The oldest festival in Venice, this celebration is a spectacular, unforgettable event, not to be missed. Imagine if you will, the city alive with ancient rituals, song and festivities while in the waters, Venetians, dressed in traditional costumes, are setting sail in their colorful gondolas and boats, using their ancient techniques of Voga alla Veneta. Though the festival itself is indeed a joyous one, full of light and fun, its history, however, remains quite significant and far from trivial.
The roots of La Festa della Sensa are both historical and religious. The name itself, Sensa, means Ascension in Venetian Dialect, signifying Jesus’ ascent to heaven. The first festival dates back to the year 1000. On Ascension day, the Doge Pietro Orseolo (the highest elected official) led a Venetian fleet to fend off encroaching Slavic pirates. Orseolo’s strategic efforts paid off, as he led Venice to a huge victory, one of enormous magnitude. Not only did the Venetian leader establish his city as a major naval force, but it also ended an age-old conflict between the Venetians and Slavs.
Paying homage to the lives lost in the battle and to the sea, the Doge celebrated his victory in a simple manner by sailing to the San Pietro di Castello Church on a barge called the Bucintoro. He then blessed the water by tossing a gold ring into the sea. Later this act would be referred to as the Marriage of the Sea (Sposalizio del mare) where the water would act as the bride. This first ceremony was without much fanfare. One of the highlights, for example, was when local clergy passed out wine, chestnuts, bread, and beans. The festival quietly disappeared, that is until another significant historical event occurred years later.
In 1177, Venice once again partook in the Marriage of the Sea when a long standing conflict between state and church finally came to a close. Before then, the tension between the Pope and Emperor was intense. When Emperor Frederick Barbarossa conquered and occupied Rome, Pope Alexander III fled to Venice and hid in anonymity, working in the kitchens of the Convento della Carità. When it became known of his whereabouts, the leader of Venice, Sebastiano Ziani, encouraged the Emperor to make peace with the church. Ziani’s efforts, however, failed and it was not until Ziani took action that the situation changed. Sailing out of Piazza San Marco with an armed fleet, Ziani attacked the unsuspecting imperial ships.
When the troops captured the Emperor’s son, Ziani was able to pressure the Emperor to engage in peace talks. The tactic worked. After a peace treaty was signed, the Pope gave Ziani a gold ring and stated, “In segno di eterno dominio, noi, Doge di Venezia, ti sposiamo o mare.” (As a symbol of our eternal dominion, we wed you, oh sea!)
Just as Orseolo did many years before, Ziani celebrated his victory with a procession, but this time the celebration was more elaborate. After the Doge dropped a gold ring into the water, the church of San Nicolò of the Lido had mass in the morning, while races took place in the afternoon.
Shortly after this historical event, once again, with the passing of the years, the Marriage of the Sea was all but forgotten. It was not until 1965 that the festival was brought back to life thanks to the efforts of a Venetian committee.
Today, la Festa della Sensa is in full glory and with much more fanfare, bringing tourists from all over the world to celebrate in its splendor. Right around the time of Ascension Day, the festival kicks off the morning with a magnificent procession where Venice’s colorful boats sail from San Marco to the Lido. Other events include the ceremony of the Marriage of the Sea, the embarking of the Serenissima which carries the mayor and the patriarch, and the Sensa Market.
Steeped in tradition and beloved by both Italians and foreigners, La Festa Della Sensa is a celebration that will surely continue and grow. Soon, those who are fortunate enough to attend, will have the opportunity to pay homage to this great city while remembering those who have once sailed and fought battles in the surrounding seas.