Venice’s La Sensa Festival, also known as The Festival of Our Lady of the Assumption in Venice, has been one of the longest lasting traditional festivals in the history of Venice. Referred to as “The Wedding with the Sea,” the event dates back to the year 997 when the Venetian Empire’s Naval fleet attacked and conquered Slavic pirates which were threatening the Italian coast. Serenissima means “Queen of the Sea” for which Venice has been known.
The Sensa Festival is held in Venice each May beginning at 9 a.m. Long ago the celebration denoted Venice as the super-power of the Adriatic Sea. In 2012, the event fittingly coincided with the America’s Cup World Series. But back in 997, Venetians solidified their superior Mediterranean trading and mercantile positions by orchestrating a commitment to the sea by way of a marriage.
The marital ceremony is renewed each year but it first orginated with a group of dignitaries, including the Doge Pietro II Orseolo, boarding the Bucintoro, a colorful and masterful barge that was used for important Venetian ceremonies. They sailed to the Port of San Nicolo, located on the Lido in one of the Venice lagoons, where the Doge cast a gold ring into the sea. This was traditionally held on the Christian feast day of Christ’s Ascension (Sensa).
This Venetian trade dominance over the Adriatic Sea and surrounding communities lasted for centuries. It seemed that the marriage of Venice and the sea would be one of the most enduring unions in history.
So each May, Venetians and all of their visitors have plenty to celebrate! The springtime festival begins with the Venice mayor dressed up as the doge. He is transported on the Bissona Serenissima, a replica of the ruined Bucintoro built in the 18th Century, which is also showcased during the Regatta Storica.
On this Venice day in May, sightseers and residents can observe the mayor who is donned in a fabulously bright period costume at the start of the short but glorious water journey near St. Mark’s Square. Then, as tradition dictates, the Venice mayor tosses the Blessed (gold) Ring into the lagoon of the Adriatic Sea at the port of San Nicolo, near the Lido, renewing the city’s vow to the sea, and the sea’s vow to the Venice. Hopeful divers are welcome to attempt to retrieve the ring (finder’s keepers), and the ring is free of taxes for a year.
Soon to follow is the historic trade fair, but first is the religious ceremony held at the Church of San Nicolo, also attended by the dignitaries, as well as the 4-oared regatta for which the race starts at 11 a.m. The fair is held at San Nicolo, but in the early days of Venice’s La Sensa Festival it was actually held in wooden boats in the Venetian lagoons. To make matters more convenient, it was moved to St. Mark’s Square.
By 1543, Venice commissioned a Sansovino architect to build wooden ships to be placed on land – at St. Mark’s Square. For certain La Sensa Festivals, Venice brings out what is known as the ancient Fiera, the wooden boats of long ago that once represented major European trade and mercantile exhibitions in Venice. Though now on a much smaller scale, if you’re looking for things to do in Venice during the month of May, the La Sensa Festival is a must-do shopping event!
For other visitors, the days following the Venice La Sensa Festival, in fact 15 days afterwards, is a pilgrimage to the Basilica of San Marco for those seeking forgiveness. The Pope granted this day as a result of his gratitude for the great assistance and hospitality he was offered by the Doge during the persecution he suffered under Emporer Rederico Barbarossa. Venice’s Doge Ziani was the mediator between Pope Alexander III and the Emperor.
Over time, this pilgrimage grew in popularity and emboldened the celebration of the Marriage of the Sea.
Nowadays, the La Sensa Festival has its visitors much to offer. For those who travel to Venice in may, and who enjoy Italian cuisine, this is the prime time for the season’s local vegetables. The open-air markets are rarely at their fullest and lively bartering can ensue. Visitors may also enjoy sumptuous Venice dishes such as the risi e bisi (Venetian rice and peas) and the castraure (artichokes) at local restaurants, among many other traditional recipes which used to be exclusive to the Sensa Festival.
While the Venice Sensa Fair is nowhere near as large as it was centuries ago when it brought Europeans to purchase some of the merchants’ best fashion, art, mercantile and produce, it is still considered a major Italian shopping extravaganza.
For the regatta and the mayor’s procession, tourists can jump aboard kayaks, gondolas and the like for up-close-and-personal viewings and tours of the Venice La Sensa Festival. This is just one of the many ways to experience travel to Venice and the spring festivals, such as La Sensa in particular, bring the romance of the sea alive!