Thursday, May 01, 2008

Further Remarks on the Ascension-Day Custom of the Blessing or Marriage of the Sea

We have already spoken of the Venetian ducal custom of the Sensa, or Marriage of the Sea, a ritual held for nearly 800 annually years before the fall of the Republic and which continues in abridged form, as well as hinting at its origins as a expiatory rite. Fairly quickly it appears to have become a political ritual, with later interpreters ascribing the shift to a largely legendary set of regalia and rites bestowed on Doge Sebastiano Ziani in 1177 by the Pope; indeed, at least one of the ceremonial implements, a candle carried before the Doge in processions by one of his chapalins, may have originally had a quasi-penitential aspect to it that was spun by the ever-nimble Venetian mythmakers into a sign of ducal faithfulness. Edward Muir, in Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice writes,

A ritual blessing of the Adriatic probably dates from Doge Pietro II Orseolo's expedition to Dalmatia in about the year 1000, which first introduced the victory banners and established Venetian control of the northern Adriatic. Orseolo set sail on Ascension Day, and afterward his victories were recalled every year on that day, when the bishop of Olivolo, accompanied by the doge and citizenry, blessed the sea (a benedictio). [This] annual blessing may have merely made official a rite commonly performed at the beginning of the sailing season in many seagoing communities [...]
At some point before 1267, the symbolic espousal had become grafted on to an essentially propitiatory ritual, and overwhelmed it. Once again, from Muir:
In the sixteenth century, the marriage of the sea was a carefully-orchestrated apogee of the state liturgy [which was often indistinguishable from that of the basilica of San Marco]. [...] After mass was sung in San Marco, the doge, high magistrates, and foreign ambassadors boarded the Buncintoro, the doge's ceremonial galley decorated with figures of Justice and the insignia of the republic. As they were rowed out onto the lagoon [...], the chapel choir of San Marco sang motets and the bells of the churches and monasteries under the patronage of the Doge began ringing. Near the convent of Sant' Elena, the patriarch of Castello, in his flatboat (piatto) bedecked with banners, joined the procession of vessels, which usually included thousands of gaily adorned private gondolas, barges [...] The religious rites of benedictio took place on the patriarch's boat: two canons began by singing, "Hear us with favor, O Lord," to which the patriarch answered three times, "We worthily entreat Thee to grant that this sea be tranquil and quiet for our men and all others who sail upon it"; the patriarch blessed the waters, and the canons sang an Oremus. The patriarchal boat then approached the ducal Bucintoro, from which the primicerio, the head priest of San Marco, thrice intoned, "Sprinkle me, Lord, with hyssop and marjoram." Next, while his boat circled the Bucintoro, the patriarch blessed the doge with holy water, using an olive branch as an aspergillum. When the party reached the mouth of the lagoon, the place where a break in the Lido opened Venice to the Adriatic, the actual marriage took place. At a signal from the doge, the patriarch emptied a huge ampulla (mastellus) of holy water into the sea, and the doge, in turn, dropped his gold ring overboard, saying, "We espouse thee, O sea, as a sign of true and perpetual dominion."
Such a rite, while perhaps puzzling and even disconcerting to us today in its insistent yoking of marriage and military dominance, had in some degree to do with rather benevolent-sounding political theories of the day which saw the union of a prince and the res publica, or a bishop and his people, as, metaphorically, a consensual and permanent marital union.

The metaphor of marriage-as-patronage was also not unknown. The Doge also engaged in a symbolic espousal of a newly-elected mother abbess of the Venetian convent of Santa Maria Nuova in Gerusalemme as a sign of his protection and patronage of the convent; naturally this was ascribed, wholly anachronistically, to the prolific Alexander III's doing as well. Furthermore, the marital aspect of the rite was not solely political; from 1446 onward, the small fishing village of Cervia near Ravenna saw its bishop "marry the sea" with his pastoral ring as a sign, not of an imperial dominance over, but a sacramental pacification of the violent sea. And indeed this form of the rite lives on within the Church. While the Mayor of Venice continues to this day to espouse the sea in a theatrical though scaled-down version of the old Sensa, it seems that at least as of 1964, the city of Chioggia south of Venice continued to bless the sea to guarantee smooth sailing, rather than to assert a jingoistic dominance over it.

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