The Festa della Sensa (Feast of the Ascension) is the oldest event in Venice that also commemorates two important dates in the history of the La Serenissima (Venetian Republic). Both events one naval (defeat of the Slavs) and one diplomatic (Treaty of Venice) were separated by 177 years but are linked together by its intimate relationship with the sea. This annual two-day event, for the Venetians is more than honoring their religious faith, it is an opportunity to celebrate their long-lasting history of the Serenissima. This is a grand celebration with the highlight of the festival being the Sposalizio del Mare (Marriage of the Sea) ceremony joining the city to the sea.
The first event took place on May 9th, 1000 (Ascension Day) and was the beginning of Venice's dominance over the Adriatic Sea. On that day Doge Pietro II Orseolo and his fleet of six ships protected the denizens of Dalmatia (a historical region of modern-day Croatia) by defeating the Slavs and showing their maritime prowess. The date of the victory was commemorated by the bishop of Olivolo and the Doge as they blessed the waters praying for good fortune for the Venetian navy and this became the start of the Festa della Sensa. The second event took place in 1177 when Doge Sebastiano Ziani, Pope Alexander III and Frederick Barbarossa (Holy Roman Emperor) agreed to the Treaty of Venice, which in affect ended the feud between the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy. The Pope gave the Doge gifts to commemorate this day. One gift was a blessed ring where the Pope proclaimed "Ricevilo in pegno della sovranità che Voi ed i successori Vostri avrete perpetuamente sul Mare" (Receive this as a pledge of sovereignty that you and your successors will perpetually have over the Sea). The pope followed that with a wedding ceremony that took place at sea "... lo sposasse lo Mar si come l'omo sposa la dona per esser so signor" (I marry the sea as I would marry a man to a woman). A gold ring was tossed into the water uniting Venice and the Adriatic Sea.
There was a period that Venice stopped celebrating this event. Thankfully in 1965 the committee revived the Festa della Sensa. Today tens of thousands of spectators visit Venice to witness this incredible and unforgettable celebration commemorating these two historical events. The canals and lagoons are filled with colorful gondolas and boats from all the Venice rowing clubs with members dressed in traditional costumes. A water parade lead by the Serenissima, which is a replica of the Bucintoro the state barge of the doges of Venice, takes you from San Marco towards the Lido. The procession stops at the church of San Nicolò in Lido, who is the patron saint of sailors, where the Sposalizio del Mare ceremony takes place. The Mayor recites the vows as the Patriarch gives his blessing. A ring is tossed into the sea commemorating this joyous occasion. A religious ceremony takes place at the church of San Nicolò following the blessing. The festa includes various regattas, water parades and a variety of shows. No festa would be complete without food, drink and a market showcasing the local crafts.