Everything you need to know about La Festa della Sensa, the day Venice celebrates its union with the sea

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    La Festa della Sensa in Venice is an important reminder of the tie between Venice and water

    The traditional “Festa della Sensa” in Venice is a celebration of the marriage between Venice and the Sea. This powerful allegory of the relationship between the city and the water, is an important reminder of the relationship with the local environment and ecosystem, especially in our contemporary days when they are threatened by human interests. 

    Two main events of great importance for Venice happen on La Festa della Sensa

    The marriage of Venice with the sea

    The day of la Sensa typically is made of two type of events. The first one, is a procession of traditional rowing boats, leaving from the Saint Mark Basin, and accompanying the majestuous boat in which the Doge back in time, the mayor today, waits to reach the Church of San Nicolo at the Lido, to throw a ring in the water as a symbol of Venice marrying the sea.

    Festa della Sensa in Venice, Italy. The traditional rowing boats parade starting from the Basin of Saint Marco with the Mayor on top of the Barca Reale, the Royal Barge. Traditionally it would have been the Doge on the Bucintoro boat.

    The first important regata of the season

    But the “Festa della Sensa” is also a significant sports event: it is the first important rowing event of the season. Champions battle during a long race to win a coveted bandiera.

    Men's Regatta on gondolas during the Festa della Sensa

    La Sensa goes back a long way in Venice's History

    Like many events in Venice, the background of the “Festa della Sensa” is nothing short of interesting. Indeed, what we now know has one manifestation is rooted in more than one historical event.

    The celebration of an important victory

    The first of those events dates back to about 1000 A.D., when Venice won an important mission, started on the day of the Feast of the Ascension, under the lead of Doge Pietro II Orseolo who successfully rescued the denizens of Dalmatia threatened by the Slavs.

    Doge Pietro II Orseolo started the tradition of sailing into the Adriatic Sea and throwing a ring into the water, while speaking words that translate to “I wed thee, O Sea, in token of true and lasting dominion.”

    It’s fitting that he was the one to start the great tradition. Orseolo’s rule marked a time of great expansion for the city-state of Venice. By creating peace between competing families within the state and reestablishing trade with the surrounding Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires, he laid the foundation for Venice to be a power in the region.

    The ocean was a central part of Venetian culture and also one of the things that made Venice important to the empires. Venice’s control over the Adriatic with its fleets of ships allowed the city-state to put down pirates and combat invading forces during Orseolo’s reign. It also facilitated trade and commerce: “Covering routes to the Aegean and Black seas allowed Venetians to meet the traders who came overland from Central Asia and around the Caspian Sea and so link up with the Silk Road. Venice remained a dominant maritime power into the sixteenth century.”

    The celebration of Peace

    The other important event of Venice’s history linked to La Festa Della Sensa dates back to 1177, when the Pope Alessandro III and the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Redbeard, signed the peace bill, so-called the  ‘Peace of Venice’, establishing peace between the papacy and the emperor.

    The Treaty or Peace of Venice, 1177, was a peace treaty between the papacy and its allies, the north Italian city-states of the Lombard League, and Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor. The Norman Kingdom of Sicily also took part in negotiations and the treaty thereby determined the political course of all Italy for the next several years.

    The treaty followed on the heels of the Battle of Legnano of 29 May 1176, a defeat for Frederick Barbarossa. Frederick quickly thereafter sent envoys to Pope Alexander III at Anagni, asking for an end to the schism between him and Frederick’s antipope, Callixtus III. After a preliminary agreement was reached, a conference was scheduled for July 1177. Frederick spent some time in the interim interfering in Venetian rivalries in hopes of securing a pro-Imperial group in power at the time of the confrontation.

    On 24 July, the pope from the Basilica di San Marco sent a delegation of cardinals to the emperor in the Lido, at the mouth of the Venetian Lagoon. The Emperor formally acknowledged Alexander as pope and abandoned his own antipope; the cardinals formally lifted the excommunication that had hitherto been placed upon him. Sebastian Ziani, the doge of Venice, and Ulrich II von Treven, the patriarch of Aquileia, then escorted the Emperor into Venice itself.

    The evolution of La Festa della Sensa

    Like for other tradition of Venice’s history, the “Festa della Sensa” evolved with time. From being the celebration of the anniversary of  Orseolo’s victory, the festival might have become a spring festival and the marker of the beginning of the theater season in 1200. Later on, as it is also the case for Venice’s Carnival, La Sensa went from being a pagan celebration to taking on more religious significance, to eventually disappear for a while before being reintroduced in the late 1990s.

    In 2016, Venetians were blessed by a beautiful, warm and sunny day, with colors typical of the season; the traditional rowing boats on the canal grande created a, sadly, rare landscape, which we hope, reminded many of what this incredible city really is.

    Parade during the Festa della Sensa in Venice, Italy

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