Defining Moments – The True Story of Ascension Day in Venice

Venice is speaking to us in symbols. For example, do you know why two lamps are always lit in the southern wing of the Doge’s Palace? Even at night, when nobody is there? We’ll tell you this story in our next post 🙂 but now, you are going to read about the symbol of celebrating ancient feasts …

In this post, we tell the real story of Festa della Sensa, celebrated on Ascension Day in Venice, and the hidden meaning of the feast.

There’s some connection to the religious festivity Ascensione del Signore celebrated by the Catholic Church on that day, in the way that Ascension Day was chosen by the Republic of Venice to celebrate something in the first place: Venice celebrated that a big hurdle to embracing the future had been removed.

The Feast was introduced during times so similar to ours. Venice was at the verge of becoming a trading super power or remaining an insignificant settlement in a hostile environment on the northern Adriatic shore. The fledgling Republic needed a stable government, reliable boats capable of transporting raw materials and luxury goods to set up a trading empire, and reliable partners. On their way from Venice to Constantinople and Alexandria (Egypt), the Venetian cogs needed to make a break on the Dalmatian coast to load drinking water and food supplies for the journey ahead.

Today, times are similar as Venice is going through another defining moment in her history, tackling the following four steps: (1) defining her modern identity (mission and vision!), (2) connecting with her roots, (3) aligning roots with the present situation and (4) deducting her role from there. Becoming Veniceland is NOT the role of Venice.

The early settlers of the Lagoon were challenged by the only enemies man cannot conquer, earthquakes, droughts and an ever-shifting ground. You must know that in the year 1000 AD, the Lagoon was on the brink of turning into a swamp. River debris were cloaking canals and the Torcello archipelago, home to the Byzantine colony, was laced with mud. The inhabitants of Torcello needed to find a new harbor and home and moved to the Rivus Altus archipelago in the center of the Lagoon, those 118 islands making up Venice as we know her today. The Byzantines settled on the islands Gemine and Ombriola, today this area is called Castello. Soon, devastating seaquakes destroyed Malamocco in the southern Lagoon, forcing the Eneti living there to move to Rivus Altus as well.

Byzantines and Eneti knew they would need to look beyond the Lagoon to continue living in such a narrow space exposed to the forces of nature, so they joined forces and decided on how to best distribute work, not only to survive but to do something meaningful and beautiful. The Byzantines contributed their knowledge of building ships, setting up the Arsenal ship-building yard in Castello.

Even today, you can notice the different roots of the Venetians, which I think is spectacular after such long a time: Each sestiere (district) has kept its own distinct character and as our Grandmother told me, you can even notice a difference in the way they pronounce Venessian (Venet), which they do in a more lilting way in Castello.

On Ascension Day, Venetians celebrate an ancient ceremony which has remained the same since the year 1000 AD, recalling the defining moment when Venice was able to secure #4 of the requirements I mentioned above to become an empire, that is, safely reaching their trading partners in Constantinople, Syria and Egypt and thus being able to do business with them.

To reach their trading partners, Venetian vessels traveled all the way south along the Dalmatian coast.

Boats would stop for a few weeks and people take a break before continuing their voyage. But it wasn’t so easy, a few towns were opposed to the Venetian presence and Saracen pirates often attacked the Venetian fleet. In a diplomatic master piece, Doge Pietro Orseolo, in the year 1000 AD, commissioned an impressive fleet in the Arsenale and officially “visited” the towns on the Dalmatian coast. Instead of paying “tribute” as Venetians had done before, the Doge decided to stage a show with his impressive fleet and succeeded in “convincing” the cities on the Dalmatian coast to stop attacking the Venetians. As a result, the Doge officially proclaimed these towns “partners in all future commerce of Venice”. And that’s what they became – steadfast partners, supporting Venice long after the fall of the Republic on 13 May 1797. In addition, Dalmatia produced wine, olives and wheat for Venice and delivered pine trunks for the Venetian fleet and marble for Venetian palaces.

Every year since 1000 AD, Venetians were recalling this event, with the Doge, his entourage and the people of Venice going in their boats to the Lido (San Nicolò area), where the Doge “married” the sea (representing the newly found trading partners) by throwing a golden ring into the water. This annual celebration was interrupted only after the fall of the Republic in 1797 but taken up in 1965. Today, it is organized by the Festa della Sensa Committee.

During the times of the Venetian Republic, in addition to the formal ceremony on the boats, the Festa della Sensa was celebrated with a grand fair organized in Piazza San Marco, called Fiera della Sensa. This fair lasted two weeks, representing a sort of prolongation of Carnival. And guess who was invited as special guests to expose their merchandise – the cities of Dalmatia !!!

Today, the Festa della Sensa is celebrated as you can see above: The mayor, accompanied by the patriarch of Venice, on board the bissona boat, throws a laurel wreath into the waters. You can watch the ceremony from Venice too, just stop along Riva dei Sette Martiri.

In our opinion, the conditions for Venice to survive have remained the same. We will write about these four conditions in our next post, an interview with a Venetian who has witnessed good times and bad ones, and who has interesting answers and suggestions which I think are so worth sharing.

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  1. “We can do it if we try!” Is a Positive Attitude to have. Thanks for this enlightening bit of history, it gives more meaning to the City that I love. Mille grazie!

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