Of all the rich pageantry that so characterised the Medieval heyday of the Venetian Republic, the most famous ceremony of all was the Festa della Sensa. This grand occasion, celebrated each year on Ascension Day was marked by the progress of the Doge aboard the state barge, the Bucentaur. The barge would make its way out to the edge of the Venetian lagoon, accompanied by a bustling flotilla of the great and the good, all festooned with banners and in their finery. Here, where the waters of the Adriatic lapped against the islands of the Lido, the Doge would stand upon the magnificent gilded prow of his barge and cast into the waters a ring, symbolising the marriage of his city to the sea; provider and protector of Venice’s wealth.
The rich symbolism of this ceremony, legend had it, had been endowed during the heady days of the ‘Peace of Venice’; a few weeks in the summer of 1177 when the Republic had played host to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III. Emperor and Pope had chosen Venice as the ideal neutral setting in which to set aside their differences and bury the hatchet after years of bitter struggle which had brought misery to Italy. As the blessings of peace descended, the Pope expressed his gratitude to Doge Ziani by presenting him with that first consecrated ring.
The origins of the ceremony went back further than this celebrated occasion however to the reign of the man who arguably set Venice on her path to greatness. Doge Pietro Orseolo II.
Orseolo came to power at a time when factional strife was rife amongst the leading Venetian families and relations with both the Byzantine Empire to the east and the resurgent Holy Roman Empire under the Ottonian Dynasty were somewhat shaky. Venice had assisted in Emperor Otto II’s failed attempt to seize Byzantine territories in the south and had then come within a whisker of being invaded by Imperial forces when Otto had been drawn into the machinations of the Coloprini family. In return for Otto’s assistance in ousting their deadly rivals the Morosini, the Coloprini had been willing to trade the freedom of the city and enfief Venice to the emperor. Otto’s death had curtailed the Imperial campaign against Venice. Nevertheless when Orseolo, (whose father had formerly been Doge and was subsequently canonised), was elected to office in 991, relations with both empires remained frosty.
Doge Orseolo set out at once to restore Venice’s international reputation; agreeing a treaty with Byzantine Emperor Basil II ‘The Bulgar Slayer’ which promised the support of the formidable Venetian fleet for his prodigious military efforts. In return Basil granted the Venetians a raft of trading privileges in Constantinople and beyond which formed the basis for Venice’s domination of eastern Mediterranean trade.
Orseolo next turned his persuasive charms on the new sixteen year old Emperor of the West Otto III. Otto, who dreamed of a restored Roman Empire with himself at its head and later moved his court to Rome, was dazzled by his reception as the guest of the Doge when he visited the city and soon granted similar privileges to Venetian merchants throughout his territories.
Having won the good will of the leaders of the Christian world Orseolo did not stop there but dispatched envoys to every Muslim court around the Mediterranean, happy to engage in diplomacy at a time when most of the princes of Christendom would have scorned parleying with the infidel. The Venetians were generally well received and profitable commercial relations were established. Orseolo, it seemed, was happy to do business with anybody. For those who would steal from the Republic however, he had only cold steel.
In the year 1000 Orseolo set out at the head of his fleet bound for the Dalmatian coast, where he determined to put an end to the Croatian pirates who plagued the settlements and shipping there. From his mast head flew for the first time in anger the banner of St Mark.
The whirlwind campaign through the Dalmatian islands scoured the pirates from their nests and all resistance was crushed. The last diehards held out in the fortress of Lagosta which surrendered following a bold assault by the Venetians. Having received the submission of all the settlements of the Dalmatian coast Orseolo returned to a hero’s welcome. It was in celebration of this achievement that the Ascension Day ceremony, in which the Doge would offer up a prayer for calm waters and a blessing on all Venetian maritime endeavors, was inaugurated.
In 1004 Orseolo once more led the Venetian fleet into action, this time against the Saracens who were besieging the Byzantine city of Bari in southern Italy. Orseolo’s fleet broke the blockade and successfully brought supplies to the beleaguered city before engaging the Saracen fleet in three days of combat which ended in Venetian victory. The gratitude of Emperor Basil II was such that it secured a Byzantine royal bride for Orseolo’s son and heir Giovanni. The arrival of the Princess Maria caused a considerable stir in Venice and there was scandal at her oriental extravagance, daily bathing, exotic perfumes and most shocking of all, her use of a fork to eat her meals.
Tragedy struck the Orseolo family within a year of the Princess’ arrival. Plague broke out in the city and carried off both Giovanni and Maria. Heartbroken, Pietro retired from public life, having raised his younger son Otto to share power with him. He died in 1008. His achievements had secured the good will of both empires and had served to make Venice the pre-eminent commercial power in the Mediterranean; a position she would retain for centuries to come. It was fitting therefore that as the Venetians set out in pomp and splendour each year to renew their special relationship with the sea, that they remembered their first great Doge; Pietro Orseolo II.
The Festa Della Sensa
The Peace of Venice 1177