Venice owes its fortune to the sea. As early as the 8th century AD Venetian ships were sailing east to trade European goods such as metal, cloth and controversially, slaves for gold, jewels, furs and spices from the Middle East. The Rialto ( from Rivo Alto or high shore ) market in Venice became the gateway to trade, as the city dominated business with the Middle East for centuries. Anyone who was anyone in the import export business was there and merchants grew wealthy. Very wealthy.
Venice was also known for its supreme naval capabilities. The Arsenale shipyard ( from the Arabic meaning workshop and where we get the word arsenal meaning arms or an armory ) produced battleships and galleons for the Venetian navy together with the ropes and weapons needed to furnish them. At the height of Venice’s powers the Arsenale was renowned for producing a completely fitted out battleship every day for the Navy, or sale or rent to anyone who could afford it.
So you see, the sea embodies the very foundation and essence of Venice, its culture, its trade and its supremacy.
It’s only right, therefore, that one of Venice’s most significant events of the year should be the Festa della Sensa at which the city ceremonially marries the sea in order to cement the relationship with her watery partner. The Sensa also celebrates the Ascension of Christ ( Sensa is the Venetian for Ascension ) and dates back to 1000 AD.
Like all weddings the Festa della Sensa includes centuries-old tradition with high symbolic value. The day begins at 9.30am with a water-borne parade from the Basin of San Marco, near the Church of Santa Maria della Salute to San Nicolò on the natural breakwater island of the Lido. Historically the Doge ( President ) was carried in a gilded ceremonial state barge, the Bucintoro, rowed by 18-20 standing men. Today the Bucintoro carries the Mayor and other dignitaries surrounded by around 100 smaller gondole ( the plural of gondola! ) and boats rowed by 2, 4 or more men and women dressed in the traditional hooped gondolier’s uniform or team colours.
The barge is trumpeted, drummed and rowed across the basin out to the Lido as normal daily traffic pauses to let the pageantry process past. It makes quite a spectacle and draws Venetians young and old out to herald the bucintoro as it tracks along the Riva degli Schiavoni waterfront. The tradition goes back over 1000 years and its history is passed from generation to generation. One local grandfather, sitting close to me at Arsenale, chose this year to explain the meaning and symbolism of the Festa della Sensa to the young grandson bouncing on his knee as they watched the barges gently glide by. It’s an important symbolic moment in the Venetian year.
The actual wedding takes place in the water in front of the church of San Nicolò on the Lido. The majority of Venetians gather along the waterfront or in boats busily buzzing around the parade to witness the ceremonial consolidation of their relationship with the water for another year. The marriage culminates with the Mayor throwing a gold wedding band into the water. A full Mass then takes place in the church to bless the union and allow Venetians to give quiet thanks away from the hustle and bustle of Saint Mark’s. It’s a Venetian family wedding without doubt.
La Festa della Sensa is also a time for celebration with the modern event, which started in 1965, including afternoon regattas staged in the San Marco basin. Demonstrating Venetian athleticism teams train hard to compete as one of the 10 boats in each of 3 races across to San Nicolò. The final regatta involves teams of 4 skilfully sculling brightly painted gondole across the San Marco basin – it is a striking affair with a rainbow of gondole in pink, green, red, yellow, blue and violet. Every colour but black goes for this race!
Rowing champions are rewarded with a prize-giving ceremony at the finish line of San Nicolò. La Sensa also awards the “Premio Osella d’Oro della Sensa” to public organisations, institutions and private citizens that have “given lustre” to the city by means of their activities in the spheres of culture, craft and trade. This is an invitation only event within the Arsenale shipyard held on the evening before the parade and remains an opportunity for Venetians to celebrate Venetians.
And so as the Festa della Sensa draws to a close for another year, Venice vividly venerates the water which surrounds her 100-odd islands, bringing trade, treasure and tourists. And although Venice may be an aging bride, La Festa della Sensa is a celebration that highlights how much we all owe to our precarious environment. Next time you’re in Venice look out for the teams of standing rowers practicing in the lagoon!
In 2016 the Festa della Sensa will be held on May 8th 2016.
As the Sensa celebrates the Ascension of Christ the date can move so check the city’s main website for details for 2016 here
Proceedings tend to follow the same schedule, roughly as below –
Festa della Sensa Water Parade
9.00am – Boats gather in the Basin of San Marco, near the Salute
9.30am – Departure of the water parade towards S. Nicolò di Lido
10.30am – Ceremony of the “Wedding with the Sea” in front of the Church of S. Nicolò di Lido
11.00am – Concert by Choir of the Serenissima in front of the curch San Nicolò di Lido
11.30am – Holy Mass at the church of S. Nicolò di Lido
Regattas of the Festa della Sensa
4.45pm – Under 25 rowers’ twin-oared pupparini regatta
5.00pm – Women’s twin-oared mascarete regatta
5.45pm – Regatta on 4 oar gondolas
Course of the parade and regattas
The parade rows from the Basin of San Marco to the Riviera of St. Nicolò, where the prize-giving takes place
Good viewing spots
Starting point – Ponte della Dogna, near the Salute
As the parade sails by – along the Riva degli Schiavoni water front, near the Arsenale waterbus stop
Marriage with the sea – Along the waterfront near San Nicolò di Lido ( be prepared for a crowd! )
Start point – Along the Riva degli Schiavoni near Arsenale or along the waterfront of the gardens on Sant’Elena
Finishing point – in front of San Nicolò di Lido.
From San Marco, Zaccharia or Arsenale take Line 1 to the Lido stop, followed by Line 8 to San Nicolò. A quick 5 minute walk along the front brings you to the church of San Nicolò. (Turn left out of the waterbus stop).
Kayak tours to get closer to the action are available through Venice Kayak