This is the seventh article wrapping up our course series “Venice for Beginners” on this Blog . Here we are telling you about the real background of Venetian feasts and why we still love and need them to this day. The season of Venetian feasts peaks on 25 April with La Festa di San Marco.
Feasts remind us of our history. In eventful times they act as source of energy and vivid reminders of our Venetian heritage and history. Celebrating Venetian feasts is part of our heritage, like a personal baggage we have saved across time. It’s traveling back in time. The missing link reconnecting us with the grand past of the Serenissima. Feasts are the link to the this past that is most palpable alongside Venetian architecture. Foodwise, it’s similar and we’ll tell you more about historical Venetian food in the coming weeks.
Thinking of modern Venetian feasts, perhaps the first thought coming to your mind are the regattas, the most famous one being the Regata Storica taking place on the first Sunday in September. Yet this is NOT a historical celebration for it was first staged in 1849, more than fifty years after the fall of the Serenissima Republic of Venice. That’s why La Regata Storica is a rather “modern” feast for Venetians.
So here I’m not referring to the “historical regattas” or the voga longa. Of course, these boat feasts have become much-loved family celebrations. Venetians still spend much time to prepare for them, perhaps even more time than they do for Christmas or Easter :-)
In this article we want to present to you celebrations of another time and style, those ancient celebrations that became part of the Venetian calendar and used to structure the year in the way holidays do in our times. There was something to look forward to and celebrations were a way to enjoy the seasons. All the people living in Venice participated, no matter whether they were nobili (noblemen) or arsenalotti (workers at the ship building factory), one of the biggest industrial sites for centuries in Europe and the first in the world using the conveyor belt technique.
The Republic of Venice did organize regattas but always with a purpose, as part of the stage and program celebrating the Venetian State Feasts. Venice celebrated five official Feasts, and all of them are celebrated to this day: The Birthday of Venice on 25 March, the National Day of the Serenissima Republic – La Festa di San Marco – on 25 April. La Festa della Sensa on Ascension Day during which took place the Sposalizio de’ l Mar ritual. To remember the severe outbreaks of bubonic plague in 1575 and 1630, the Venetian State introduced two more official celebrations, La Festa del Redentore celebrated on the third weekend in July and La Festa della Madonna della Salute on 21 November.
We distinguish between Official State Celebrations and Private Feasts dedicated to the Venetians only. There are even special feasts in certain sestieri and even in the parocchie (parishes), La Festa de San Piero de Casteo is one of them.
During official feasts, foreign guests (kings, queens, diplomats, sometimes popes) were invited by the Venetian Government to participate. Guests were treated to fabulous banquets taking place in the palaces lining the Grand Canal, in the Doge’s Palace or in banqueting rooms overlooking the Arsenale.
Of course, these official Feasts also required special dishes enjoyed during State Banquets. After all, Venetian cuisine was famous for more than a thousand years. Risi e bisi is the festive spring dish eaten by the Doge and his entourage on 25 April, La Festa di San Marco. You can still taste it on the menus of many restaurants in Venice on that day.
25 Aprile, La Festa di San Marco is celebrated very much in Venice. First, there’s a mass service in the Basilica followed by flag parades in Piazza San Marco. Women in the family are presented with red rose buds (el bocolò) and there’s a revealing yet sad legend connected with it – La Storia di Maria e Tancredi. Then it’s up to you to enjoy your day and perhaps taste a dish of risi e bisi, for example at Fiaschetteria Toscana near Campo SS Apostoli.
The secret in preparing risi e bisi is using a special variety of piselli (green peas). This ancient pea variety is grown near Scorzè in Peseggia and in 2012, the ancient pea risotto recipe was officially reintroduced. It’s actually much the same that Venetian families have been preparing for generations. At least, we haven’t lost this recipe!
Prima Veneziani, poi Cristiani. That was the approach to life the Serenissima instilled into its people for centuries, meaning First Venetians then Christians (a mixture of Byzantine and Catholics). That also explains why Christmas and Easter and other Catholic Feasts weren’t so much celebrated in Venice here like in other European countries. The Byzantine influence was too strong in Venice for the Catholic church to become exclusive.
Another forgotten Feast, perhaps the sixth available to the Venetians living a long time ago in town were the Lunedì del Lido. Until the early 1900s, the working population, especially the ones living along the Canale della Giudecca in Dorsoduro used to take Mondays in September off from work. They went to enjoy a picnic on the Lido beaches or spent the warm evenings dining on little private boats moored in the Canale della Giudecca alongside the luxurious boats of noblemen.
Venetian celebrations recall our good and bad times. How good ones were harnessed and the bad overcome and dealt with collective knowledge passed on from one generation to the next.
I loved this video taking you to Piazza San Marco, on top of the Campanile and into the Basilica on 25 April 2016. It conveys a festive mood reminiscent of the real Venice.