Venice's Sensa Festival, when Venice symbolically marries the sea, is one of the city's top events. In 2012 the Sensa festival is on May 20. Author Joanne M. Ferraro explains what it means for Venice to marry the sea in this guest post:
The world's fastest catamarans will race the Adriatic waters around Venice between May 12 and 20, 2012 in the America's Cup World Series. What better place to stage regattas than the sea port whose city magically floats on water? Venice has a longstanding tradition of maritime events every spring. The exciting World Series competition, of international acclaim, will precede one of Venice's most cherished rituals, its marriage to the Adriatic Sea, on Sunday, May 20, and the weekend following the marriage the city will regale in the much-celebrated vogalonga.
What does it mean for a city to 'marry the sea?' The curious metaphor refers to an annual fertility rite that originated around the year 1000 AD, when the Venetians began their quest for maritime riches in the Mediterranean world. Encouraged by a recent sea victory against menacing pirates in Dalmatia, the Venetians orchestrated a celebration that took the form of a marriage ceremony joining them to the Adriatic. The Doge Pietro II Orseolo together with civic dignitaries boarded the state ceremonial barge, named the Bucintoro, and, accompanied by a train of rowers, sailed to the Port of San Nicoḷ on the Lido, the channel where the lagoon met the sea. There the ducal groom cast a gold ring into the water and took the fertile Adriatic to be his bride. The ceremony proclaimed Venetian dominion over trade routes and colonial lands that would for the next six centuries bring great riches, a proclamation that was repeated annually on the Christian feast day of Christ's Ascension, called the "Sensa" in Venetian dialect.
The medieval marriage ceremony, together with an historic trade fair, was revived in Venice in 1965, and since then both have been popular Venetian events. Every year the mayor of the city, together with civic, religious, and military representatives, embarks from San Marco to the Lido, garbed in historic costume on the spectacular Bucintoro barge. A gregarious crowd of residents and visitors await them at their destination point. After the mayor, dressed as the doge, tosses a ring into the sea, the dignitaries attend a religious ceremony at the Church of San Nicoḷ. A "Sensa" fair is held on the church grounds, and the afternoon is filled with boat races. It is a wonderful time to walk amidst the Lido's lush vegetation, enjoy the island's elegant nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture, and stop at the historic Jewish cemetery, sites that are not to be missed.
This year the Sensa Festival and the Marriage of the Sea are sure to draw a large international audience, since the rituals coincide with America's Cup World Series. The following week, on May 27, the floating city will stage another nautical event of worldwide interest, the vogalonga, a rowing race from the basin of San Marco to the island of Burano that returns via the Cannaregio Canal and Grand Canal and finishes at the Punta della Dogana. Originating in 1975, the event is a showcase of rowing boats from around the world, with as many as 3,000 women and men participating.
Venetians have been faithful marriage partners to the sea, expressing a great love for all activities connected with it, whether boat racing, nautical processions, or preparing exquisite cuisine based on fish from the Adriatic and spring vegetables from the islands in the littoral. The sea in turn has borne Venice good fruit, making the marriage rite and Sensa a special time for the city to honor its relationship with the Adriatic and to commemorate its rich history and traditions.
Joanne M. Ferraro is the author of Venice: History of the Floating City (forthcoming August 2012). She is professor and Chair of History at San Diego State University, and the author of Family and Public Life in Brescia, 1580-1650 (Cambridge, 1993); Marriage Wars in Late Renaissance Venice (2001); and Nefarious Crimes, Contested Justice: Illicit Sex in the Republic of Venice, 1557-1789 (2008). She has conducted historical research in Venice for more than 30 years and is an International Associate of Venice's Ateneo Veneto.
Photo of Venice and the Sea by Joanne M. Ferraro, used with permission