Venice Has Been Married to the Sea for Over a Thousand Years

Happy anniversary, you crazy kids

The doge's barge, called the Bucentaur, returning to Venice after the "wedding" ceremony. This painting is by eighteenth-century Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto. Wikimedia Commons

Venice and the sea: it’s a match made in heaven.

Every year, the doge of Venice would get into a boat to renew the city’s vows with its eternal companion. It's a gaudy ceremony that has captured the imaginations of artists since the tradition began in about 1000 A.D., and its 2017 celebration is happening this weekend.

In the first marriage, as Smithsonian Folkways reports, Doge Pietro II Orseolo started the tradition of sailing into the Adriatic Sea and throwing a ring into the water, while speaking words that translate to “I wed thee, O Sea, in token of true and lasting dominion.” In this ritual, the sea represented a submissive wife—hardly a marriage of equals.

It’s fitting that he was the one to start the great tradition. Orseolo’s rule marked a time of great expansion for the city-state of Venice, writes medievalist Christopher Kleinhenz. By creating peace between competing families within the state and reestablishing trade with the surrounding Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires, he laid the foundation for Venice to be a power in the region.

The ocean was a central part of Venetian culture and also the the things that made Venice important to the empires. Venice’s control over the Adriatic with its fleets of ships allowed the city-state to put down pirates and combat invading forces during Orseolo’s reign, he writes. It also facilitated trade and commerce, writes Smithsonian Folkways: “Covering routes to the Aegean and Black seas allowed Venetians to meet the traders who came overland from Central Asia and around the Caspian Sea and so link up with the Silk Road. Venice remained a dominant maritime power into the sixteenth century.”

Festa della Sensa 2016

The ceremony has changed in meaning over the years: when it began, it was timed to mark the anniversary of a famous mission undertaken by Orseolo that began on a public feast day called the Feast of the Ascension, according to history students from Wake Forest University. In the 1200s, they write, the rites became a spring festival and the marker of the beginning of theater season. It also changed to take on more religious significance.  Eventually, however, it stopped being observed.

That all changed in 1965, when the festival was brought back to celebrate the city’s heritage and create a spectacle for visitors to Venice.  It’s still part of the Festa Della Sensa, or Feast of the Ascension, which celebrates Jesus Christ’s rebirth in the Christian faith. The mayor of Venice now performs the doge's role.

Over time, the ceremony has been copied by as a way of signalling sovereignty or a local art celebration. But it's hard to imagine another place with the same roots to the sea as Venice.

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