When one hears about state-sponsored visual propaganda and elaborate parades, designed to cultivate patriotic pride, it’s easy to think about 20th century dictatorial regimes. But no totalitarian genius, no minister of propaganda would’ve conceived of the splendor, the scale, the sheer audacity of the grand civic myth, fostered by the Venetian Republic at its time.
One of the earliest and most beloved topics was the foundation of the city itself – or, rather, its miraculous birth. According to popular legend (borrowed, in its turn, from the neighboring Padua), Venice was founded on the day of Annunciation feast, in 421 CE. This day – 25th of March – was, according to yet another picturesque story, the day when Rome was founded. Popular sentiment also assigned yearly awakening of nature from its winter slumber to 25th of March. For greater effect, the story of Annunciation was sculpted, carved and drawn in most religious and political centres of the city – from grand Basilica San Marco to bustling and commercial Rialto Bridge. And, in case anyone still missed the point, the Renaissance painter Bonifacio de Pitati adorned Doge’s Palace with a splendid canvas, showing God the Father and the Holy Spirit soaring above Piazza San Marco. Furthermore, an elaborate pageant, literally called “the Feast of the Marys”, was hosted every year, and the re-enactment of Annunciation scene was its vital point. A priest from one of the city parishes appeared dressed ceremonially as the Virgin, and the other’s priest was robed as the angel Gabriel. This ecclesiastical crossdressing, along with reliefs and sculptures, helped to reinforce one grand patriotic idea: that Venice was created by divine intervention as a virtuous Republic to bring (political) salvation to free people. Its foundation was akin to coming of the Saviour, it was blessed by celestial will. This is not the humblest claim even on its own; but it gets better. Or worse. Bear with me.
Now, neither Middle Ages nor Renaissance era saw anything outlandish in enthusiastic veneration of a saint. As most aspects of religion did, saints’ cults permeated every area of your life: whether you were wishing for luck in your profession or on your journey, choosing props for your portrait or a name for your child, the notion of patron saint was there. However, Venetian Republic took this notion up to eleven.
Of course, there were some patron saints in the beginning, when the future great city was little more than a scattering of fishermen’s dwellings. There was St. Theodore, reminder of their erstwhile ally, the great and golden Byzantine Empire; there was St. George of Dalmatians and Greek St. Demetrius. However, who, but historians and obsessed history geeks (like me), recalls them now? They were outshadowed and drowned in the shining glory of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Saint Mark and his winged lion – one of the four winged beasts of the apocalypse, a quintessential symbol of Venice. The story of snatching Saint Mark’s body from Alexandria alone would have made a great heist movie. Adventurous team, elaborate plan and chase scenes in exotic locations would have been present. For instance, the holy relic had to be hidden in a basket of pork to pass through Muslim inspection. Later on, it supposedly helped the ship to survive a terrible storm. And, in the end, it arrived to lagoon city to cheering reception. Centuries after, this happy ending was reproduced on magnificent paintings and countless frescoes. Alas, the view, which Alexandrian authorities held on this escapade, was not recorded so thoroughly. St. Mark himself took his place firmly as a chief celestial protector of Venetian Republic, and his lion – as its glorious emblem.
If you were pondering places to visit in Venice, you could, in fact, structure a whole city walk around lions: they are as abundant as they are versatile, performing various tasks for the trade empire. For example, enter the city from the basin (bacino), just as prominent diplomats of Renaissance era had done. You would pass between two high columns on the Piazzetta by the Doge’s Palace. One of them is crowned by the city’s famous symbol: a bronze lion with its wings spread for takeoff, its paws already dancing on the ground. A militant, virile lion, ready to defend the lagoon city from any foes coming from the sea. However, should you proceed further, you will see other lions, carved in relief on the façade of the Doge’s Palace. They are facing in opposite directions, aligning their backs as a throne for personified Venice. Here she appears as a figure of Justice, armed with a sword and scales of judgment, and they are her faithful supporters – because Venetian Republic, of course, is the justice embodied, and even the mightiest of creatures pledge their allegiance to her. And – you don’t even have to leave the Piazzetta! – another winged lion stands over the magnificent entry to the Doge’s Palace. He props up an open book with its right front paw, displaying the words, “Rest here, Mark, my evangelist.” So, this is a refined, religious, evangelizing lion – a shining symbol of Venetian piety.
But by the late fifteenth century, apparently, lions and saints were not enough anymore. Warm winds from the courts of Florence and Milan brought new fashions to the lagoon city, and its strict, medieval Christian image was given a classical makeover. Venetian Republic, domain of aged councillors and shrewd merchants, caught up with lofty Renaissance ideas relatively late; however, no one wants to appear an unsophisticated boor to the rest of the world.
Therefore, Jacopo de Barbari’s monumental view of Venice, carved in wood in 1500, announced, that in addition to God, the Virgin, and Saints Mark and Theodore, the classical gods Mercury and Neptune gave the lagoon city their protection. The architect Jacobo Sansovino adorned the Scala dei Giganti (Giants’ Stairway) in the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace with statues of Mars and Neptune, each representing Venice’s power on land and sea. Paintings of Venetian Renaissance artists, with their magnificent style and splendour of colour, explored those themes as well. Tintoretto’s ceiling, which you can see in the Sala delle Quattro Porte in the Doge’s Palace, told the legendary story of city’s foundation; but, instead of echoing the ancient myth of Annunciation, it shows Roman god Jupiter leading Venice into the Adriatic. These bright, potent images created a slightly schizophrenic, but nonetheless impressive pantheon.
Humanist writers argued furiously and wrote extensively about Venetian origins. One of the most popular versions linked Venetians with the free-spirited, noble warriors of Troy, who reputedly fathered the inhabitants of Venetia. Others praised Venetian nobles as direct descendants of now-revered ancient Romans. Actually, these latter authors were not that far from truth: first Venetians were the inhabitants of crumbled Roman Empire, who sought refuge from barbarian forces in the safety of the lagoon. These humble settlers, mostly fishermen and farmers, were certainly plucky, hardworking people. But they could hardly be held up proudly as noble and wise ancestors of the ruling elite, as historical justification of why, in fact, these elite should rule at all. And this justification was required: the “myth of Venice” was intended for domestic consumption as much, as it was designed to impress neighbours and foreign visitors. The Venetians themselves had to be constantly reminded, how special their state was, how virtuous the government. And that’s where pageants came in.
Although all Italian cities had a calendar of festivals and celebrations – especially those of religious nature – Venetian pageants were in a league of their own. No expense was spared: flying banners, elaborate scripts, bejewelled robes, vivid tableaux, and, of course, the participation of Doge’s famous Golden Barge – the Bucintoro. They were not always dedicated to ancient history: sometimes these ceremonies took a stance on topical political matter. Let’s take the feast of St. Justina as an example. During the Republic’s strife with the Pope in the years 1606-7 the procession included an inflammatory float, showing a collapsing church, which was supported by the doge and the Saints Dominic and Francis. Both saints were portrayed praising the doge. This message possessed the subtlety of a dropped anvil, but it was very effective in terms of infusing Venetians with civic pride.
The most renowned, the most extravagant Venetian celebration was – and continues to be – La Sensa, or “Marriage to the Sea”. The ceremony began with a grand procession, which accompanied the Bucintoro to the sea past the Lido island, and culminated in Doge tossing a ring overboard with accompaniment of solemn chanting. The head of state symbolically “married” said state to the Adriatic, therefore affirming its maritime prowess and reminding everyone present, that Venice, in fact, rules the waves. This majestic pageant from its origin had a very political lining: it was inaugurated during the eleventh century to commemorate a successful campaign to conquer Dalmatia, commenced under the leadership of the Doge Pietro II Orseolo. Furthermore, in 1177, Pope Alexander III infused the ceremony with an almost sacramental character in gratitude for Venetian services against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. The pontiff gave his ring to the Doge to throw into the sea; after that the feast of La Sensa became annual. In fact, it continues to this day, even though the office of Doge was abolished and the Bucintoro dismantled by Napoleonic forces centuries ago. Now, should you happen to visit Venice in spring (the dates vary), you can witness the mayor of the city performing it from his ceremonial barge, procession accompanying him as illustrious, as it had been in the heyday of the Republic.
I hope, that murky origins of this celebration won’t hinder your pleasure; they certainly didn’t hinder it for these Venetians, who had been enjoying it for centuries. In fact, so popular and well-loved did the feast of La Sensa become, that it got accompanied by renowned international fair. Curious farmers from faraway lagoon islands flocked to the fair; dignified visitors from Milan and Padua, France and Germany attended it. For fifteen days, Piazza San Marco became a site of grand market. Gold and perfume, silks and daggers, rare books and exotic spices, precious mirrors and intricately crafted shoes were put on display. Famous Venetian merchants were obliged to close their shops and set up stalls, distributed through guild lotteries, on the Piazza instead. For fifteen days, Piazza San Marco was turned into a glittering emporium, showcasing everything the wealthy and cosmopolitan Republic had to offer. Unfortunately, the scale of celebrations has somewhat diminished since those days; but still, the feast is now completed by the Sensa Market at the Church of San Nicolò on Lido.