History of the Feast of the Sensa

by Elena Brunello
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One of the most exciting shows of local folklore and tradition, the Feast of the Sensa (Ascension Day) attracts every year in Venice thousands of tourists and locals. During two days of May, the city hosts a huge celebration featuring a water parade, several regattas, local markets, kite shows, a Sensa dinner serving local delicacies, and many historical reenactments. The Feast of the Sensa is the celebration of Venice’s bond to the Mediterranean, culminating with the spectacular show of The Marriage with the Sea.

A Centuries-long Tradition

The Sensa Festival is deeply rooted in the Venetian tradition. It used to celebrate the “Serenissima” Republic of Venice’s relation to the sea on the day of Christ’s Ascension (“sensa” in the local dialect). The tradition goes back to the year 1000 and marks two crucial events in the city’s history. On May 9 in the year 1000, Doge Pietro II saved his inhabitants from the Slavic menace, wiping out the Narentine and Croatian pirates from the coast and assuring Venice’s dominion of the Adriatic Sea and its conquest of the Dalmatia region. The second event consists in the Treaty of Venice, a peace agreement signed in 1177 during the reign of Doge Sebastiano Ziani and putting an end to the 100-year-long dispute between the Empire (Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa) and the Papacy (Pope Alexander III).

What's on in brief

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The celebration consists of two days packed with events. A grand opening is usually held at Palazzo Ducale, with a ceremony awarding Venice’s sister city for the current year. On the following day, a huge water parade made of the rowing boats from the Venetian Rowing Society starts from Saint Mark basin and heads for Saint Nicolò di Lido. Having reached the port of Saint Nicolò, the mayor of Venice inaugurates the core event of these two days: the Marriage with the Sea. A religious mass follows this exciting ceremony, followed by typical markets in the square of Saint Nicolò and several regattas. Explore this year’s full programme for the Feast of the Sensa.

An exciting tradition: Venice’s marriage to the Sea

This is probably one of the most exciting local folklore traditions in Italy. Thousands of people gather from all over the world to watch this spectacular event, together with flocks of locals. It is well known that Venice holds a special relationship with the Mediterranean Sea, having been its ruler for centuries. Until the Turks started to gain power in the area and the first explorers of the New World moved the political and economic axis to the West, Venice was one of the most powerful reigns of the world, trading from the Adriatic Sea to the Baltic, to India and China. On the day of the Ascension (Feast of the Sensa) the Doge (Venice’s ruler chosen by the Senate) left the shores of Saint Mark on board of the Bucentaur, the official galley: a moving water palace. A solemn procession started to sail out of the lagoon, through the mouth of the Lido, until the Church of Saint Nicolò (patron of sailors). Here the patriarch celebrated a mass, asking for the protection of the Venetian fleets and invoking good luck. Afterwards, the doge tossed a golden ring into the sea: a symbol of an indissoluble bond between the city and the sea. Today, the Marriage of the Sea is presided by Venice’s mayor and civic dignitaries, and religious and military representatives, on board of a bissona, a special rowing boat. After the water parade, the mass, and the markets, every year the Feast of the Sensa ends with various Venetian rowing regattas and traditional events.

Did you know that?

There are some interesting facts about the Feast of the Sensa and The marriage of the Sea that you might not know. Venetian world famous 18th-century artist Canaletto painted the Bucentaur’s Return to the Pier by the Palazzo Ducale, while, likewise renowned painter Francesco Guardi depicted The Departure of the Bucentaur for the Ascension Day Ceremony, an oil on canvas painting now held at the Louvre in Paris. The first bucentaur, the golden ship and state barge of the Doge, was built around 1311. The last Marriage was performed in 1796 with Doge Ludovico Manin; with the fall of the Republic of Venice, the celebration was banned. The last bucentaur was destroyed in 1798 by Napoleon to symbolise his conquest of the Venetian dominions and the end of the Republic of Venice. There are other marriages to the Sea celebrations in the world, such as one in Cervia, another in Pisa, and one that used to be performed in Poland.

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