“Hardly a week went by without a spectacle’s taking place, one usually connected with the doge.” Two such ceremonies were la Festa della Sensa and the Coronation of the Dogaressa. In the Renaissance, when women were considered dangerous when they were independent and powerful and it was important for those in power to subordinate them, it is unusual that two major civic ceremonies would not only involve women, but revolve around feminine iconography. Today, we will examine these two ceremonies in terms of their importance to the city of Venice and their connection to each other. Then, in a 2nd post, we will discuss how and why they were related to female imagery and what this meant in relation to the Doge. I argue that these two ceremonies are not arbitrarily related, but rather purposefully so to create a dual image of the ultimate woman as wife of the Doge. At that time, it was rare for women to be honored, let alone freely exist in public, and yet Venice seemed to completely ignore these societal expectations so that these two ceremonies could take place.
La Festa della Sensa, also known as the Spozalizio del Mare, was the yearly marriage ceremony of the Doge to the sea. The festival took place on Ascension Day (an important day for Venice in itself through its connection to Mary and Jesus) and was the Doge’s most important ceremonial act of the year. This made the festival recognizable, as Venice, unlike other cities in the Renaissance, was known for the large number of public festivals hosted on a regular basis. Additionally, festivals frequently had political undertones that the public would have understood. While representative of the Venetian connection with the sea and the Doge’s control over the empire, this event also symbolized Venetian naval and diplomatic victories. In terms of naval victory, the Venetians defeated Dalmatian pirates at the end of the 10th century. This victory marked the beginning of the Venetian domination of the Mediterranean and the Adriatic. The diplomatic victory occurs equally early in Venetian history and has similar significance. In 1177, the Doge mediated peace between Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III. Not only was peace established, but the Venetians also showed their political equality to both the Papal States and the Holy Roman Empire. The naval victory is clearly represented as the ceremony itself occurs in the lagoon. The diplomatic victory is represented through the ring the Doge gifts the sea. The ring was supposedly a gift from Pope Alexander III in thanks for Venice’s mediation of the peace treaty. It was interpreted as indicative of this diplomatic event as well as a symbol of papal grace over Venice.
As one of the most important festivals of the year, la Festa della Sensa was elaborate and involved the entire population of Venice. The initial ceremony would take place in San Marco’s with the Doge, his advisors, and other politicians. From there, they would parade out to sea. The Doge would be in his boat, the bucintoro, and the lagoon would be filled with gondolas and other boats. People not only participated as spectators, but also witnesses to the wedding. Once the Doge reached the edge of the Lido, another small ceremony occurred and was concluded by the Doge throwing the gold ring into the sea saying “We wed thee, O Sea, in token of our eternal power and dominion.” The ceremony was then complete and everyone returned to the Doge’s Palace for feasting. Sometimes the feast would be so elaborate, it would last for multiple days. The marriage of the sea is a vital ceremony within Venetian culture as it solidifies and symbolizes Venetian domination of the sea. It was also one of the annual ceremonies and served to constantly remind Venetians of this power in relation to the Doge.
The Coronation of the Dogaressa, while in part is an important physical ceremony, has additional, powerful symbolic undertones. Not only was she being elevated to this office, but her coronation was her symbolic death as a regular woman and her rebirth and transformation into the sacred office itself. Her husband would have undergone a similar ceremony, but the Dogaressa had her own important ceremony as well. The coronation is not only centered on the Dogaressa, but the Doge himself is absent for the entire ceremony leading up to the feasts. The ceremony itself, like la Festa della Sensa, is divided into three stages. First, the Dogaressa is collected from her home by the Councillors and brought via boat to Piazza San Marco for the administration of the oath of office in the basilica. Then, the Dogaressa, along with a large procession of spectators, move from the Piazza to the Doge’s Palace. Finally, the Dogaressa is installed in the palace and after some formalities, hosts a feast. As coronations of the Dogaressa were seldom, a majority of the city would come to observe the events in addition to the involvement of the Councillors and the guilds in the ceremony itself.
Although the coronation ceremony varied over the centuries, some aspects of it remained consistent and are important to note. First of all, on her procession from her home to Piazza San Marco, the Dogaressa rides in the Doge’s private boat, the bucintoro—the same boat the Doge himself uses for la Festa della Sensa. Secondly, the oath that the Dogaressa recites is the same as the Doge’s during his coronation. While the Doge has additional parts to his oath, the restriction and promises that they make are the same. Finally, throughout the ceremony in San Marco and the Doge’s Palace, the Dogaressa sits in the Doge’s throne. All of this serves to elevate the Dogaressa so she is essentially an equal to the Doge, but without his political power. However, she does have her own social power as the ceremony in general has strong ties to the guilds as they all participate, show their allegiance to the Dogaressa, and support her throughout the process.
Despite being two of the most important ceremonies in Venetian culture, neither is regularly depicted through art during the Renaissance. In the case of the coronation of the Dogaressa there is some justification as these coronations were infrequent. The Doge was normally old when elected into office and frequently widowed by this time so there would be no Dogaressa and therefore no coronation. In the fifteenth century, there were only three Dogaressa and only one coronation due to the plague. The next century only saw two coronations of the Dogaressa ceremonies. Yet la Festa della Sensa was an annual festival. Of the images of la Festa della Sensa, the most commonly reproduced painting is by Canaletto in the eighteenth century. However, for the purpose of this discussion, examination of a seventeenth century woodcut print potentially after a sixteenth century artist proves more fruitful.
Made by Jost Amman possibly after Giovanni Andrea Vavassore, this print depicts a large and detailed scene as the Doge processes from San Marco to the bucintoro before heading out to the lido. The extreme details provide a narrative account of the festival and how it was enacted in the sixteenth century. While multiple aspects of this work will be discussed, it is important to note that the Doge is somewhat difficult to identify as there is so much action going on in addition to the sheer size of the work, he does not stand out among the other figures. In fact, the figure at the center of the print is not the Doge, but a crowned woman. Additionally, it is intriguing that women are shown at all in the public square. A majority of the population would come to witness this festival, but women were relegated to balconies or at least separated from their male counterparts. In this print though, many women can be seen throughout as they openly interact with male figures.
Although two completely separate ceremonies, visual representations of the coronation of the Dogaressa could easily be confused with those of la Festa della Sensa due to their visual similarities. These similarities are especially poignant in one such work, painted by Andrea Vicentino in 1595. As in the print previously discussed, the scene is set within the architectural background of the Piazzetta in Venice as the viewer approaches from the lagoon. The water in the foreground is filled with boats and the Piazzetta is similarly filled with people. There is one main diagonal through the picture plane created by the procession from the bucintoro to the Dogaressa dressed in gold close to the boats up towards the Doge’s Palace. As with the Doge before her, the Dogaressa is difficult to identify at first although she is relatively central within the painting.
The two ceremonies are rarely, if ever, discussed in conjunction with one another, and yet there are clearly similarities worth exploring. As has already been alluded to, these two civic festivals both have strong connotations with traditional Venetian weddings. In the case of la Festa della Sensa, the festival is in itself a wedding—although a symbolic one—between the Doge and the sea. It might not be a real wedding, but the statement of vows within San Marco’s Basilica, the gift of a ring by the groom, the presence of witnesses, and the celebratory feast are all traditional of a marriage of nobility in Venice. The coronation of the Dogaressa might not be a symbolic marriage, but it mimics the traditional marriage ceremony in the procession from the bride’s house, swearing of oaths in a church, feasting, and the ritual transitioning from her familial home to her new home with her husband. Weddings and festivals in general were a vital part of Venetian culture, but the correlation of these two features within la Festa della Sensa and the coronation of the Dogaressa are worth noting in addition to their commonalities.
While the two ceremonies are different in function, their locations and their general progression are surprisingly similar. Both begin at a secondary location, focus the majority of the festivities around Piazza San Marco and the lagoon, and end with a feast. This description is very general and lacks the more detailed examination required for comparison. Before discussing that however, it is important to emphasize how central a role Piazza San Marco plays in the ceremonies both physically and symbolically. In both festivals, San Marco is a pivotal location where some of the main aspects of the festival take place. Additionally, although rarely seen in art, whenever these festivals are depicted, they are normally shown during the procession either to or from San Marco. Piazza San Marco was not only the center of these festivals, but also the center of Venetian society. The Doge’s palace was located in Piazza San Marco as well as the Basilica. It was one of the main meeting places for vendors, merchants, diplomats, politicians, and lay people in addition to being a recognizable symbol of the city and the city’s power and influence. As festivals were such an important part of Venetian culture, their progression and organization were well documented. La Festa della Sensa was the simpler of the two festivals. It began in San Marco’s Basilica with a service, there was a progression through Piazza San Marco to the bucintoro, the Doge sailed out to the edge of the lido, he said his vows to the sea, and the ceremony ended with festivities in Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. The coronation of the Dogaressa followed the same basic progression, but was more complicated. The ceremony began at the Dogaressa’s private home, there was a progression in boats or the bucintoro (depending on where the house was located) to Piazza San Marco, there was a ceremony in the Basilica, the Dogaressa processed into the Doge’s Palace, she participated in another ceremony in the palace, and the ceremony ended with festivities in Piazza San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. Both festivals involved central ceremonies in the San Marco Basilica, centered around the Piazza in general, and ended with festivities in the same piazza. This piazza was symbolic of the city of Venice, her power, as well as the Doge’s power and any association with this location lent influence and legitimacy to the ceremony.
Not only is San Marco important physically and symbolically for these two ceremonies, but within depictions of art, San Marco serves as a stage for the participants. Both depictions of the ceremonies discussed here do not show the most important moment or a moment of action. Instead, both show moments of transition. In the scene of la Festa della Sensa, the Doge is leaving San Marco’s in a parade towards the boats as they sail out to sea. However, the most important aspect of this ceremony, both visually and symbolically, is when the Doge throws the gold ring into the sea. Similarly, in the coronation of the Dogaressa, the Dogaressa is not shown sitting on the Doge’s throne in the palace. Instead, she is shown as she processes into San Marco. As with la Festa della Sensa, the main action has not yet been performed and yet, both scenes show processions of people through San Marco. Clearly there are symbolic meanings to this as mentioned before, however, there are also visual ones. The piazza itself creates a stage for the Doge and the Dogaressa within their respective crowds. The buildings around them, that include some of the most important buildings for the Venetian Republic, serve to frame them. It is difficult to determine who is depicted as there are so many details in both works and the viewer is separated by the lagoon and boat filled foreground. However, the focus of the works of art is made clear by the architecture directing the viewer’s eye to the central section of the painting and the crowds of people celebrating Venice and their leader.
In addition to the imagery of the location, one specific aspect of the artworks themselves is important to discuss—the presence of female figures and imagery and a decidedly lack of male ones. La Festa della Sensa is a ceremony centered around male power, specifically that of the Doge. He is dominating the entire sea by personifying the sea, feminizing it, and then subordinating it through marriage. And yet, there is a noticeable lack of male symbols of power or male symbols at all in the work. First of all, as previously discussed, the moment in the ceremony that is traditionally depicted is not one where the Doge exhibits power. In fact, he is a passive figure as he processes towards the bucintoro. In addition, he is hard to locate within the scene. He is not central, larger, or made to stand out in any way. After a detailed examination, the viewer can identify him, but he does not emanate power the way one would expect in such an image of Venetian male power through propaganda.
The clear lack of masculine symbols is amplified by two feminine aspects. The most obvious of these is the presence of women in general in this scene. During the Renaissance in Venice, women were not allowed to openly mingle with men during day to day life or during an important festival. The most important women would have been allowed to attend, but they would have been sequestered. As can be seen in this detail image, women are present and are openly moving throughout the public space. Although the presence of women is noteworthy, the expected position of the Doge as the central figure playing an active role is usurped by a woman. In the central section of the print, there is one main boat in profile to the viewer. The figure to the far right is the rower. The figure in front of him is a crowned woman holding on as her boat moves forward. This woman and her boat are one of the first things focused on by viewers when approaching this image. Not only is she at the focal point, but she is a large figure, semi-separated from other figures around her, in an active position of holding on to a moving boat. There is nothing passive about her pose and her crown only serves to emphasize her agency. She looks as though she is sailing into battle or ready to command power. Is this a personification of the sea preparing to marriage the Doge? Is this another important female figure? Whoever she is, it is almost arbitrary as she takes away any focus from the Doge whatever her identity may be.
In images of the coronation of the Dogaressa, there is similar imagery, or at least lack of male imagery. Again, there are a variety of female figures participating in the festivities either as part of the Dogaressa retinue or as spectators to the ceremony. Additionally, unlike the Doge, the Dogaressa is the main figure in the central section as she disembarks from the bucintoro. Not only is she centrally located, but she is draped in a gold gown that easily identifies and differentiates her from the other figures dressed in black, red, and white. She is also not usurped by any other figures. Although not necessarily overtly feminine, this image is also not overtly masculine. The presence of female spectators, female participants, and the focus on the Dogaressa all serve to present female power and agency to the viewer as it is clear that a woman does not have to be the Dogaressa to participate in this important ceremony.