The Festa della Sensa is the wedding of the year in Venice

The Festa della Sensa is a traditional event, which symbolizes the marriage between Venice and the sea. It takes place on May 12, 2024, which is the Sunday after Ascension (Sensa in Italian). Before I tell you about the different stages of the procession and where you can watch it, I will first give you some historical background.

Origins of the Festa della Sensa

The Festa della Sensa is a re-enactment of a dual celebration during the time of the Republic of Venice. It coincides with the Ascension of Christ, but there is no religious link with this event.

The first reason to celebrate goes back to May 9, 1000. On this date, Doge Pietro II Orseolo successfully rescued the citizens of Dalmatia who were threatened by the Slavs. This marked the start of the expansion and the dominant maritime power of La Serenissima in the Adriatic Sea.

The second reason was the peace treaty that Doge Sebastiano Ziani, Pope Alexander lll and Emperor Federico Barbarossa signed in the San Marco basilica in 1177. This ‘Treaty of Venice’ ended the long-term dispute between the Papacy and its north Italian allies on the one hand and the Holy Roman Empire on the other hand. The treaty determined the future political course of Italy.

The historical celebration of the Festa della Sensa

On the occasion of the Festa della Sensa, the Doge sailed into the Adriatic Sea to perform the marriage ceremony (Sposalizio del Mare). It symbolizes the maritime rule of Venice and its intimate relationship with the sea. The solemn procession of boats was led by the Bucintoro, the abundantly decorated parade ship of the Doge, which was built in the Arsenale (more information in my post ‘The fascinating history behind the Arsenale walls’). The Doge also received a blessing from the Patriarch of San Pietro di Castello.

When the procession arrived in front of the church of San Nicolò del Lido, the patron saint of the sailors, a prayer was said for a calm and peaceful sea for all sailors. The Doge also dropped a consecrated ring into the sea reciting ‘Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii’ (‘We marry you, sea, as a sign of true and perpetual domination’).

Similar to Carnevale and other traditions in Venice, the Festa della Sensa evolved over time and even disappeared. Venice started to celebrate the Festa della Sensa again around 1965.

Program of the Festa della Sensa

The current celebration is a re-enactment of the historical procession, in which the Mayor takes on the traditional role of the Doge. The Serenissima boat, a replica of the Bucintoro, leads the procession. It is followed by hundreds of boats from the rowing associations of Venice.

The procession starts in the Bacino di San Marco, between the Palazzo Ducale, San Giorgio Maggiore and Punta della Dogana. We arrived at 8.30 am to join the AVM boat. Not long after that, we were surrounded by a wide variety of boats. The Serenissima looked very impressive with its rowers and trumpeters dressed in historical uniforms. The other rowing boats were all very colorful with the clothes of the rowers often assorted with the boat itself. The number of rowers per boat varies from 1 to 18. While everyone was trying to find a place in the procession, the atmosphere was very relaxed. The large number of rowers radiate a large feeling of solidarity, as well as pride about their city.

I have a deep respect for these rowers, because it must be very tough. First, there are so many boats that it requires a lot of concentration and excellent rowing skills to avoid collisions. On top of that, you cannot define your own pace and have to follow the flow. Finally, there are lots of waves due to the larger rowing boats, the motor boats of the organization and the jet skis of the police.

Around 9.30 am, the officials, such as the Mayor and the Patriarch, board the Serenissima. The trumpeters start to play and all boats salute by raising their oars. This is a solemn sign of respect and very touching. The procession sails close to the Riva degli Schiavoni and the Riva dei Sette Martiri, so you can easily watch it from the quay.

INSIDER TIP: There’s no need to watch it amidst the San Marco crowds. You can better wait for the parade to pass closer to the Arsenale. Take a seat on one of the benches to admire the beautiful vessels and the hard work of the rowers.

Before crossing the lagoon, the procession continues to the Scuola Navale Militare ‘Francesco Morosini’ (military school) at Sant’Elena. After saluting the officers, it sails to the fort on the Sant’Andrea island. The infantry, dressed in historical uniform, raises the flag on top of the tower and looses off a volley. In response, the rowers salute with the oars. During the entire procession, the trumpeters of the Serenissima play from time to time. This part of the parade can only be seen aboard the boats.

The salute to the military school at Sant’Elena

Finally, around 10.30 am, it’s time for the symbolic wedding ceremony in front of the San Nicolò church in Lido where the Mayor recites his official statement and the Patriarch gives his blessing. After the launch in the water of a green wreath with tiny golden balls, the Mayer then throws a metal ring which symbolizes the golden wedding ring. Many people watch this ceremony from the bridge and the Riviera S. Nicolò. The officials disembark the Serenissima to listen to the choir and to attend the ceremony in the church.

Around 11 am, the participants of the regatas arrive at Lido. The Regata della Sensa is one of the first important rowing events of the season.

If you cannot attend the Festa della Sensa, you can also watch the Serenissima and a historical boat parade at the Regata Storica on the first Sunday of September.

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