The Sensa di Venezia, also known as the Feast of Our Lady of the Assumption in Venice, is one of the longest-running traditions in the city's history. Venetian commercial domination over the Adriatic Sea and its surrounding communities lasted for centuries. It seemed that the 'marriage' between Venice and the sea would be one of the most enduring in history. That is why every May the Venetians proudly commemorate 'The Wedding with the Sea' or 'Nozze con il mare'. The event dates back to the year 997 when the naval fleet of the Venetian Empire annihilated the Slavic pirates who were tormenting the coast. Serenissima means 'Queen of the Sea' for which Venice is known.
The Festival della Sensa is held in Venice every May starting at 9am. Long ago, the celebration commemorated Venice as the superpower of the Adriatic Sea. In 2012, the Venetian event conveniently coincided with the America's Cup World Series.
La Senza originated when a group of dignitaries, including Doge Pietro II Orseolo, embarked on the Bucintoro. The Bucintoro was a colourful and masterful barge that was used for important Venetian ceremonies. The dignitaries sailed to the Porto di San Nicolò, located on the Lido in one of Venice's lagoons, where the Doge threw a golden ring into the sea. This event was traditionally held on the Christian feast day of the Ascension of Christ (Sensa).
Nowadays this festival is characteristic and picturesque. The celebration of the Venetian Sensa starts with the mayor dressed as the doge. This is transported on the Bissona Serenissima, a replica of the ruined Bucintoro built in the 18th century. The Bissona itself is displayed during the Historical Regatta. On this day you will see the mayor wearing a period costume during the glorious journey on the water near St Mark's Square. Then, in keeping with tradition, the mayor throws the Golden Ring into the sea at San Nicolò harbour, renewing the city's devotional vow. Hopeful divers are invited to attempt to retrieve the ring, if they succeed.
This is followed by a religious ceremony at the Church of San Nicolò with a four-oar regatta and the historic fair. Recently, to make things easier and more folkloric, the celebrations have been moved to St Mark's Square.
In 1543, Venice commissioned the architect Jacopo Sansovino to build wooden ships to be placed on land in St Mark's Square. For some, the celebration of the Sensa is reminiscent of ancient fairs, where today's wooden boats represent the ancient pomp and circumstance. If you're looking for things to do in Venice during the month of May, La Festa della Sensa is an unmissable shopping event reminiscent of that ancient fair!
In the 15 days following the Sensa festival, there is a pilgrimage to St Mark's Basilica for those seeking forgiveness. The Pope granted this festivity in memory of the hospitality offered to him by the Doge during the persecution suffered by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Doge Ziani of Venice acted as mediator between Pope Alexander III and Emperor Barbarossa. Over time, this pilgrimage grew in popularity and encouraged the celebration of the Marriage of the Sea.
Today the Sensa festival has a lot to offer if you want to take part. If you're in Venice in May and you love Italian cuisine, this is the best time to sample seasonal vegetables. The open-air markets come alive and lively bargaining takes place. You can also sample sumptuous Venetian dishes such as risi e bisi (rice and peas Venetian style) and castraure (artichokes) in local restaurants. These recipes were enjoyed exclusively during the Sensa Festival.
Although the Venetian Sensa Festival is nowhere near as old as it was centuries ago, it is still considered one of today's main extravagant events.