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festa della sensa

'Ritorno del Bucintoro al molo il giorno dell'Ascensione', c.1734. Windsor Castle, Royal Collection
"Ritorno del Bucintoro al molo il giorno dell'Ascensione" by Canaletto, c.1734.
Windsor Castle, Royal Collection

Festa della Sensa: the origins

For the Venetians, the Ascension did not have just a religious significance (Jesus' Ascension into Heaven). It also meant 2 weeks of festivities, banquets and regattas for the marriage of the sea and the Doge on the Bucintoro, the large ceremonial ship kept for his use during solemn festivals and above all for the sailing out to sea on Ascension Day.
A military venture in Dalmatia gave rise to the Festival of the Ascension, which dates back to 997. That year, in fact, saw the end of a battle that had gone on for centuries between the two banks of the Adriatic, so different and so differently inhabited. On one side the Venetians and on the other the Croatian "Slavonians".
In 997 the Dalmatian cities turned to Venice for help when they found themselves threatened by the Slavs. The fleet of the Serenissima, led by Doge Pietro Orseolo II, put out to sea from the port of Lido on the very day of the Ascension and won a historical victory over the eternal enemy. From that day, the region of Dalmatia came under "Venetian maritime jurisdiction". The victory merited a solemn celebration and Doge Orseolo established that from that day forth, every year on Ascension Day, the Doge himself should return to the Lido accompanied by the Bishop of Olivolo (the present day Castle) and, once out in the open sea, they should bless the waters and invoke their kindness on those that sail them. In the beginning, it was a simple ceremony and remained that way for almost 180 years, with the handing out of chestnuts and red wine offered by the monks of St Helen, and of bread and beans to the rowers.

In 1177 Pope Alexander III, having met Barbarossa in St Mark's Basilica, offered Doge Sebastian Ziani a blessed ring and pronounced the prophetic words: "Receive this ring as a pledge of the supremacy that you and your successors will have for ever on the sea". Every Doge from then on, had a gold ring made every year for the Ascension, identical to the one he wore on his finger. On the day of the wedding, at the head of the finest wedding procession every seen, the Doge, having reached the stone lighthouse and turned the poop of the Bucintoro towards the open sea, threw the ring into the sea - after brushing it with olive branches and sprinkling it with holy water - with the words: "Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii".

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