If you have not already read part 1, do that first! Otherwise none of this will make any sense.
There is a clear similarity between la Festa della Sensa and the Coronation of the Dogaressa and how they were performed and represented visually. But is there further meaning to these similarities? I propose that there is. The visual and actual mirroring between these two ceremonies is deliberate to tie the two together within the minds of those who witnessed and participated in them. This connection created the idea of the dual wives of the doge. On the one hand, the sea became the Doge’s wife and represented fertility and female submission to the male Doge. On the other hand, the Dogaressa is the actual wife of the Doge, but her ceremony separates her from her gender and her role as a mother to establish her as the ideal woman within Venetian society. This notion of the dual wife would have been unique to Venice. While there are many aspects of Venetian society that are unique, this representation would have been far removed from anything else in Renaissance culture. Therefore, a more complete understanding of the role of the wife in each of these ceremonies must be reached in relation to the Doge as well as to society as a whole.
La Festa della Sensa is a marriage ceremony. It is easy to identify the Doge as the groom, but the bride causes more confusion. Essentially, the Doge is marrying a personification of the sea. The sea is transformed into a female figure who is legally subordinate to her husband, the Doge. This subordination is then reiterated on a yearly basis. Furthermore, the imagery is indicative of a few aspects of wifely duties that emphasize these ideas. First of all, the sea is providing a “dowry” to the Doge through her riches in fish and access to materials on land. Second of all, she if fulfilling the role of fertile and dutiful wife. She obeys her husband and as a vibrant aspect of nature, is symbolic of the fertility of the earth. In this way, the sea fulfills the traditional marriage roles assigned to women during the Renaissance. Additionally, the ring that the Doge throws into the sea underscores this imagery. The circular nature of the ring symbolizes joining, continuity, eternity, and fertility— all vital aspects within this marriage.
On the other hand, the Dogaressa does not necessarily fulfill the traditional wifely duties, but she does fulfill those of the ideal woman within Venetian society. While the ceremony itself closely mimics a Venetian wedding, the imagery it propagates serves to undermine those ideas. Instead of subordinating the Dogaressa to the Doge, the ceremony helps to solidify the Dogaressa’s agency and undermine any previously established subordination or assumptions at all concerning the Dogaressa as a woman. Additionally, the Dogaressa’s lack of traditional wifely qualities must be established. When elected, the Doge was normally old. The average age for the Doge between 1400 and 1600 was 72. While women were normally significantly younger than their husbands, the Dogaressa would most likely have been past child-bearing age, if she was still alive at all. Their children, if they had any, would have most likely been adults with their own children. In this way, it was unrealistic and unnecessary to emphasize the Dogaressa’s fertility. Moreover, the office of the Doge was not a hereditary one. The Doge was elected through an extremely convoluted voting process specifically designed to prevent hereditary transition from one Doge to the next. In a traditional marriage, the wife’s role was to provide children, specifically male children, to inherit their father’s wealth and position. This was especially important for men in power such as dukes and kings where hereditary transition was prescribed. Without this necessity, there was no obvious role for the Dogaressa and no clear female or womanly attributes to emphasize. In art, a wife was traditionally shown to emphasize her reproductive capabilities and yet with the Dogaressa, it is undefined how such a woman should be displayed.
In addition to this visual ambiguity, the coronation of the Dogaressa further complicates this situation. The ceremony itself was thought to symbolize the obliteration of the gender distinctions associated with the Dogaressa. Therefore, despite being the legitimate wife of the Doge, the Dogaressa is no longer important as a reproductive source or as a woman at all. In fact, she is allowed a coronation in the first place because of her identification as a sterile figure instead of a fertile woman. Then, the coronation itself serves to disassociate both the domestic and female social spheres from the Dogaressa. The coronation elevates the Dogaressa to the position of the ideal woman within Venetian society.
In this role, unlike other Venetian women, the Dogaressa was allowed to participate in both civic and religious rituals that occurred throughout the city. As a part of these ceremonies, she did not represent fertility or subordination by women. Instead, she was representative of wealth, piety, and the social stability of the city while the Doge represented the political and economic power and stability. The Dogaressa is thus separated from the typical wife and even women in general in the Renaissance. She is raised to the level of the “living archetype of feminine virtues” in general as well as in relation to the Doge through their marriage. Venetians are constantly reminded of this through the multitude and regularity of festivals and rituals that would occur in the city.
Both the Dogaressa and the sea fulfilled specific roles as wife of the Doge. The Dogaressa became the ideal woman within Venetian society while the sea allowed the Doge to assert his power as her own fertility was emphasized. Separately, they satisfy some of the expectations held by Venetian citizens regarding the role of woman and wife. Together, the Dogaressa and the sea combine to form the ultimate woman who is able to fulfil every expectation of woman for Venice and the Doge. Furthermore, these two ceremonies are purposefully aligned so as to connect them within the minds of viewers and create this image of the perfect woman.
Thank you for reading and comment with your thoughts! For more information on sources/ citations, I’ve included the bibliography below and would be happy to discuss anything!
Boholm, Asa. “The Coronation of Female Death: The Dogaressa of Venice.” Man Vol. 27, No. 1 (1992): 91-104.
Cristellon, Cecilia. Marriage, the Church, and its Judges in Renaissance Venice, 1420-1545. Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
Hacke, Daniela. Women, Sex and Marriage in Early Modern Venice. England: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2004.
Hopkins, Andrew. “The Influence of Ducal Ceremony on Church Design in Venice.” Architectural History Vo. 41 (1998): 30-48.
Hurlburt, Holly Siobhan. “La Serenissima Domina Ducissa: The dogaresse of Venice, 1250-1500.” Ph.D. Dissertation, Syracuse University, 2000.
Hurlburt, Holly S. “Public Exposure?: Consorts and Ritual in Late Medieval Europe: The Example of the Entrance of the Dogaresse of Venice.” In Gendering the Master Narrative: Women and Power in the Middle Ages, edited by Mary C. Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski, 174-189. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Hurlburt, Holly S. The Dogaressa of Venice, 1200-1500: Wife and Icon. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.
Mackenney, Richard. “Public and Private in Renaissance Venice.” Renaissance Studies Vol. 12,No. 1 (1998): 109-130.
Muir, Edward. Civic Ritual in Renaissance Venice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Muir, Edward. “Images of Power: Art and Pageantry in Renaissance Venice.” The American Historical Review Vol. 84, No. 1 (1979): 16-52.
Myers, Mary L. and Boorsch, Suzanne. “Grand Occasions.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin Vol. 29, No. 5 (1971): 236-243.
Psarra, Sophia. “Statecraft: A Remarkably Well-Ordered Society.” In Venice Variations: Tracing the Architectural Imagination, 83-137. London: UCL Press, 2018.
Sanudo, Marin and Labalme, Patricia H. and White, Laura Sanguineti and Carroll, Linda. “How to (and How Not to) Get Married in Sixteenth-Century Venice (Selections from the Diaries of Marin Sanudo).” Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 52, No. 1 (1999): 43-72.
Wilson, Bronwen. “Il bel sesso, e l’austero Senato: The Coronation of Dogaressa Morosina Morosini Grimani.” Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 52, No. 1 (1999): 73-139.