The history behind the traditional events in Venice

Venice is a city which is known for its history, as well as for its traditional events. Carnival is the best known, but there are several other events which are worth attending. Some events are still celebrated by the locals, while others (such as Carnevale) have become more touristic. In this post, I will give you an overview of the most important ones and explain the history and rationale behind each of these.


Carnival is without any doubt the most famous event in Venice. It was first celebrated at the end of the 12th century. Over time, it evolved into a combination of historical re-enactments, such as the Festa delle Marie or the Nicolotti e Castellani, and festivities, such as the Festa Veneziana or the Best Masked Costume Competition. The Festa Veneziana is quite different from what you might expect from the Venice carnival as there aren’t any mask contests. The water show and boat parade are however really worth a visit in the first weekend. From the second weekend, the ‘traditional’ events start with the Festa delle Marie.

The origins of the Venice Carnival date back a very long time, but it is not one hundred percent clear when this would have been. Most sources mention 1162 when Venice celebrated the victory against the Patriarch of Aquileia, while other sources claim that the Doge Vitale Falier (the chief magistrate in the former republic of Venice) and the government of la Serenissima allowed the poor people already in 1094 to enjoy a short period of fun and festivities. Over time, the event has appeared and disappeared, and the festival and the use of masks even became strictly forbidden in 1797 under the rule of the King of Austria. It reappeared gradually in the nineteenth century, but only for short periods and mainly for private parties. It was only since 1979 that the event became organized in the current way. At that time, the government and some Venetian associations (such as Teatro La Fenice, the Venice Biennale and other tourist organizations) decided to revive the history and culture of Venice.

Festa di San Marco

The Festa di San Marco celebrates Venice’s patron saint, Saint Mark, who died on April 25, 68 A.D.

It is also known as the rosebud festival (Festa del boccolo), as men traditionally give a single rosebud (preferably red) to the women they love, and it coincides with the Italian Liberation Day. Hence, there are plenty of reasons to party on this day. There is a mass in the San Marco basilica, followed by the Regata dei Traghetti from Sant’Elena to Punta della Dogana. There are also concerts and markets all over the city.

Festa della Sensa

The Festa della Sensa is an ancient celebration of the relationship between Venice and the sea. It takes place on the Sunday after Ascension (Sensa in Italian). The large procession at sea consists of the ceremonial Serenissima boat and hundreds of boats from the rowing associations of Venice. The parade starts in front of San Marco, from where it sails towards Lido. You can easily watch it from the Riva degli Schiavoni between San Marco and Arsenale. Finally, the symbolic wedding ceremony, in which a ring is thrown into the sea, is held in front of San Nicolò.

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. 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.

You can read more details about the Festa della Sensa in my post ‘The Festa della Sensa is the wedding of the year in Venice’.


The Vogalonga is a non-competitive race where rowers from all over the world take over the lagoon and canals in Venice in a wide variety of colorful boats, from canoes to dragon boats.

The event started in 1975 as a protest against the growing use of powerboats in Venice and the damage they do to the historic city. The 30 km course starts in the Bacino di San Marco and extends over the northern lagoon, past the islands of Sant’Erasmo, Burano and Mazzorbo and through the centre of Murano before returning to the finish in Venice.

Festa del Redentore

The Festa del Redentore is one of my favourite events in Venice and it’s still very popular amongst Venetians.

The Festa del Redentore celebrates the end of the plague of the 16th century and is a yearly event ever since. It takes place during the weekend of the third Sunday of July. During this weekend, a pontoon bridge connects Giudecca and Zattere, so you can cross the Giudecca canal by foot. On Saturday evening, the Venetians celebrate with friends and family, either on their boats in the bacino or on tables along the Riva. The fireworks above the San Marco Bacino are very impressive. On Sunday, you can watch the procession, attend the mass or enjoy the regatas in the afternoon.

Between 1575 and 1577, Venice was hit hard by the plague. The bacteria was probably brought into the city on board of one of the commercial vessels. The plague killed 50,000 people, almost one third of the total population. The most famous victim was the painter Titian, although it is not 100% sure whether he died from the plague or from another cause during that period.  In 1576, Doge Alvise Mocenigo begged God to end the plague. He promised Him to build a large church in exchange. When the plague ended in July 1577, the new Doge Sebastiano Venier honoured this promise to God and built a temporary wooden church in a couple of days. In 1578, he also started a new tradition by installing a temporary bridge for a pilgrimage across the Giudecca canal from Zattere to the church. The wooden church was later replaced by the Redentore church, named after the Redeemer.

After visiting the church, you can go around Giudecca to discover more stunning buildings. You can find more information in my post ‘Giudecca: A peaceful island with 10 remarkable buildings‘.

Regata storica

The Regata Storica is one of the most important traditional events in Venice. It takes place every first Sunday of September. The event consists of 2 parts: a historical boat parade and a series of rowing races. The historical procession commemorates the welcome given in 1489 to Caterina Cornaro, the wife of the King of Cyprus, who renounced her throne in favour of Venice. The brightly colored parade with ornate boats and rowers in 16th century costumes sails along Canal Grande. It is followed by four competitive regatas: the champions’ regata in gondolini, the regata in caorline, the women’s regata in mascarete and the young rowers’ regata in pupparini.

The origins of the Regata Storica go back to 1841, when the Municipality of Venice asked the Austrian authorities to organize an annual boat race on Canal Grande. This would give the opportunity to encourage the gondoliers and honour their skills. In 1866, when Venice became part of Italy, the focus of the event shifted towards a celebration of the history of the Republic of Venice. In 1899, the name ‘Regata Storica’ was given by Count Filippo Grimani, the mayor of Venice.

Festa della Salute

The Festa della Salute is another traditional Venetian event to remember the end of a plague. The plague of 1630 killed tens of thousands of Venetians or almost 30% of its citizens. This event is very popular amongst Venetians. They cross Canal Grande via the votive bridge connecting the sestiere of San Marco with Dorsoduro to attend one of the masses held in the Salute basilica from 6am to 8pm. Candles are lit in memory of those that died in the plague, and of loved ones who might be ill. The area around the basilica is filled with street food stalls which creates a warm and busy atmosphere.

If you would like to know more about the history of Venice, I suggest you read my post ‘A short introduction to the complicated history of Venice‘.

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