Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Sensa: Venice's Marriage of the Sea

Today's feast has always been an occasion for wonderfully outlandish expressions of piety. Until the twentieth century, a wooden statue of Christ would be lifted up on a pillar through the oculus of the Pantheon to commemorate the occasion, while in another famous Italian city, the day had a peculiarly maritime association.

Ascension Day was marked, in the gilded epoch of the Most Serene Republic of Venice, by one of the most colorful celebrations in their religio-civic calendar, the Espousal of Venice and the Sea, also sometimes called the Festa della Sensa (Sensa being the Venetian dialect for "ascension"), in which the civil ruler of the place, the Doge, symbolically represented Venice's sovereignty over the ocean by ritually espousing it. (This is not the place, of course, to discuss details of marital theology--complementarity, headship, the active and receptive roles of the spouses, mutual subjugation to each other in Christ, remembering the Adriatic Sea's birthday and anniversary, &c.--in regards to imperfect political analogies.)

The ceremony had strong religious overtones, having originally begun around the turn of the first millenium as a expiatory rite intended to quell storms and rough waters. Similar propitiatory rituals, with a local bishop in place of the Doge, were not unknown elsewhere along the coast, and a blessing derived from this custom was inserted in one American version of the 1964 Roman Ritual. It may well persist in some places.

Considerable religious significance lay in the person of the Doge himself, who had acquired a peculiar quasi-ecclesiastical role in much of the ceremonial of the Basilica of San Marco, his court chapel. However, at some point the liturgy became essentially a large-scale set-piece of glittering political theater. At the same time, the expiatory role was not totally expunged, and the patriarch and the priests of the ducal chapel continued to play prominent role:

The form it took was a solemn procession of boats, headed by the doge's nave (ship), from 1311 the Bucentaur, out to sea by the Lido port. A prayer was offered that "for us and all who sail thereon the sea may be calm and quiet," whereupon the doge and the others were solemnly aspersed with holy water, the rest of which was thrown into the sea while the priests chanted "Asperges me hyssopo, et mundabor" ("Sprinkle me with hyssop, and I will be clean" – Psalm 51:7). To this ancient ceremony a quasi-sacramental character was given by Pope Alexander III in 1177, in return for the services rendered by Venice in the struggle against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. [This may well simply be a bit of slippery Venetian political mythology, which had the peculiar ability to make Venice look good in even the most unappealing lights. I will have to consult a more critical history of the ritual when I return home this evening.] The pope drew a ring from his finger and, giving it to the doge, bade him cast such a one into the sea each year on Ascension Day, and so wed the sea. Henceforth the ceremonial, instead of placatory and expiatory, became nuptial. Every year the doge dropped a consecrated ring into the sea, and with the Latin words "Desponsamus te, mare" ("We wed thee, sea") declared Venice and the sea to be indissolubly one. [Source].
Indulgences were granted to those in attendance, in addition to all the usual qualifications.
The Pontiff, indeed, was grateful "per la poderosa assistenza e per il cortese ospizio donatogli nella persecuzione da esso patita per Federico Barbarossa Imperatore" (for the great assistance and hospitality he was offered during the persecution he suffered under Emperor Federico Barbarossa), and thus granted indulgences to all who visited the "Ducal Chapel" (the Basilica of San Marco), in the eight days (later, 15 days) following the celebration. [Source].
The ritual continues in a much-abridged form in Venice itself, with the mayor in place of the Doge, riding a much-scaled-down version of the old state barge, the Bucintoro, now long gone. Work has begun to create a full-scale reproduction of the last state barge built before the collapse of the republic in 1797; the original had, like so many other beautiful ornaments of old Europe, been effectively destroyed by Napoleon by stripping it of its ornaments and converting it to a floating battery. It was broken up in 1824 after serving time as a prison hulk.

I hope to post more information on other local variants of this ritual associated with the Solemnity of the Ascension later in the day.

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