Venice marries the sea: the bride was lovely


Last Sunday (May 16) Venice pulled what was once one of its greatest festivals out of storage for its annual exhibition: Ascension Day, or “la Sensa.”

The boat procession, having passed the Naval College, moves along the Lido shoreline toward the church of San Nicolo' and the ceremony of the blessing of the ring.

The boat procession, having passed the Naval College, moves along the Lido shoreline toward the church of San Nicolo’ and the ceremony of the blessing of the ring.

Up until  the year 1000 A.D., if you’ll cast your minds back, the fortieth day after Easter had been primarily known as the commemoration of Christ’s ascension to heaven.   It still is, but  at the turn of the millennium the day took on large quantities of extra importance for Venice.

The day also became just as famous for the “Sposalizio del mare,” or wedding of the sea, a ceremony performed by  the doge and Senate  in the company of many boats of all sorts which all proceeded toward the inlet to the sea at San Nicolo’ on the Lido.    At the culminating moment,   the doge tossed a golden ring into the lagoon waters and intoned, “Desponsamus te, Mare, in signum veri perpetique dominii.”   (“I wed thee, O Sea, in sign of perpetual dominion.”)

The "Serenissima" pulls up to the judges' stand to put the doge -- I mean mayor -- and retinue ashore.

The “Serenissima” pulls up to the judges’ stand to put the doge — I mean mayor — and retinue ashore.

This statement had nothing to do with religion, even though it does sound  impressive in Latin, right up there with “till death us do part.”   It had  much more to do with politics, because on Ascension Day in the year 1000 (May 9, if you’re interested), doge Pietro II  Orseolo  finally quashed the Slavic pirates who, from their eastern Adriatic lairs,  had been harassing Venetian shipping and seriously inconveniencing Venetian progress.

This was a pivotal moment in Venetian history; it opened the way to centuries of expansion, wealth and power, and the Venetians  wanted to make sure that all their assorted neighbors and trading partners and possibly also  trading competitors remembered  what they had done and could do again, if necessary.

For another thing, beginning in 1180 one of the largest commercial fairs of the entire year was held during the Ascension Day period.   Merchants and traders from all over the Mediterranean and beyond set up booths in the Piazza San Marco to sell ivory, incense, ebony, oils of jasmine and sandalwood and bergamot,   pomegranate soap, tortoiseshell   back-scratchers, bath salts, mirrors inlaid with mother-of-pearl, dried figs and apricots, plant-based hair dyes, luxurious textiles, and even Abyssinian and Circassian and sub-Saharan slaves.   All this was traded in languages and dialects from Venetian to Armenian, Hebrew, Uzbek, Greek, Turkish, German, Georgian, Iberian, Arabic, French and Persian.   I’m sure I’ve left something out.     This fair was such a big deal that soon it was extended from eight days to  two weeks.   Yes, even back then the city was just one big emporium, though incense strikes me as being cooler than the bargain Carnival masks made in China bestrewing the shops  today.

A flea market by the church of San Nicolo' is the best we can do on evoking the fabulous market of yore.

A flea market by the church of San Nicolo’ is the best we can do at evoking the fabulous market of yore.

I don’t suppose that the average Venetian on the street would have told you  much of the above if you’d stopped to ask what the big deal was about  the Sensa.   But a smallish contingent of people  have applied themselves, since the early Nineties, to bringing back at least some ceremonial in order to acknowledge the moment  .

Need a lampshade with a portrait of Audrey Hepburn or Charlie Chaplin? Now's your chance.

Need a lampshade with a portrait of Audrey Hepburn or Charlie Chaplin? Now’s your chance.

I wonder if any merchants from the old days would have been tempted by these.

I wonder if any merchants from the old days would have been tempted by these.

So yesterday morning there was a boat procession, more or less following the “Serenissima,” the  biggest and fanciest of the city’s ceremonial barges which was carrying the mayor (best we could do, seeing as we’re dogeless these days) and  costumed trumpeters and a batch of military and civilian dignitaries and also a priest.

At the  Morosini naval college at Sant’ Elena, all the cadets were ready and waiting, lined up along the embankment.     Standing crisply at attention with their hats in their right hand, on command they raised their hat-holding arm straight out at a sharp 45-degree angle, and shouted with one voice “OO-rah.”   They did this three times in succession, then there was a pause.   Then they did it again.    They do this at intervals till the boats have all passed.

For my money, this is the best part of the event, much better than the ring-and-sea business.   In fact, I’m convinced that if the cadets were not to do this, it would ruin the entire day.

The boats surround the "Serenissima" as the declamation(s) proceed.

The boats surround the “Serenissima” as the declamation(s) proceed.

The boats then proceed to the area in front of the church of San Nicolo’ on the Lido, where they clump together, the priest blesses the ring, and the mayor throws it into the water.   One year our boat was close enough that I took somebody’s dare and actually managed to snag it before it sank (all the ribbons tied to it momentarily helped it to float).     Then I had a heavy surge of superstitious guilt.   Even if it wasn’t gold — it was kind of like what you’d use to hang a heavy curtain — it was a symbolic object fraught with meaning.   I wondered if I’d just  blighted Venice’s mojo for another year.   But I didn’t throw it back — that seemed even stupider than grabbing it in the first place.   So, you know, my disrespect just left another  ding on the chrome trim of my conscience.

The first three gondolas, battling it out as they approach the first buoy.

The first three gondolas, battling it out in the back stretch.

Then there is a boat race — in this case, a race  for gondolas rowed by four men each.   In Venice the celebration of really important events always involved a regata, and when this festival began to take form, Lino created this one.   Yesterday the competition was somewhat more dramatic than usual in that  a strong garbin, or southwest wind, was blowing, and it was also really cold.   Lots of big irritated waves.   Strong incoming tide.   All elements that do not conduce to easy victory or friendly handshakes afterward, not that these guys are ever inclined to that sort of thing.   But it made for a very exciting 40 minutes — better than usual, if you could stand the cold.

Heading into the home stretch, they held onto third place, well ahead of their closest competitors.

Heading into the home stretch, they held onto third place, well ahead of their closest competitors.

So much for the festivities, so much for the wedding of the sea.   No honeymoon, though.   We just move  on to another 12 months of trying to dominate the sea.   Not with galleys anymore; Venice seems to be doing a pretty good job with  the ever-increasing  flotilla of  cruise ships.

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Categories : Boatworld, Events, History, Water


  1. Michael says:

    This is wonderful! Both the historical story and the modern one.


  2. Krystyna says:

    I loved the naval college cadets! This was my first Sensa, and they were a total surprise for me. You know, one can read infos about this festival everywhere, but I never heard or read or expected to see them there. So it was an extra fun, and they were lined up so nicely always with the same distance from each other… quite impressive 🙂

  3. This looks amazing, the gondolas do look like they are having a hard time!

  4. Good work .. Very great effort
    Thank you very much

  5. Cherie says:

    I was there in 2010, and it was unforgettable. I remember that race. So cool to find out it was Lino’s idea.

  6. Robert L. says:

    I’m going through your blog and I absolutely love it! I just wanted to mention that it was actually Pietro II Orseolo who began the Marriage of the Sea ceremony, not his father, Pietro I! Since Pietro II basically founded the Venetian trading empire, I just wanted to make sure he also got credit for one of the Republic’s most meaningful traditions!

  7. Gepetto Sanchez says:

    Hello. You have an amazing blog, and this is a very nice article about Venice! I’m interested in Venetian colonial history and currently I’m writing an amateur article about Venice’s trade with the Levant during the Middle Ages. I was wondering something about your article: While describing the Ascension Day festivals of 1180, you have listed some commodities that had been on the markets of Piazza San Marco in those days; and I’ve noticed dried figs and dried apricots among them. I know that a lot of goods, spices, fruits and nuts made their way to the markets of Venice in the Middle Ages due to their extensive trade networks in the Mediterranean, however there are very little info on the internet or anywhere at all about the commodity and crop exchange between the levant and the city. I was searching if fruits and crops like dried figs and apricots, pistachios, and dates were actually imported into the city of Venice from the east and that’s how I came across with your blog. Is it true that dried figs and dried apricots were indeed among the fruits that’s been sold in Venice in those days? I mean I’m looking for some sources to back my article up and when I’ve seen your article I thought maybe I should ask you if the goods list in your article is actually from some source, which I also can benefit from, for my article. I’ll be really happy if you reply to me, thanks in advance.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      Thanks for the compliments and encouragement — always welcome. For the other readers, I note that I replied to you privately giving you the citation from the book “La Venezia degli Armeni, p. 44. I like a challenge so anybody reading this, if you have a question, give me a shot at answering it. Meanwhile, back to work with me.