Festa della Marie

Festa della Marie. Dive into the heart of Venice’s Carnival with the Feast of the Marie, an event steeped in history and tradition. Celebrate the ancient tale of twelve brides and their communal wedding, the dramatic rescue from pirates and the modern-day parade of beauty and costumes that honours this legendary feast. 

Today, as the main opening event, the festival is a fusion of history, myth and festivity; capturing the essence of Venice and its lasting traditions. It’s a lively and colourful event that draws visitors globally and if your in Venice during this period, it’s certainly a spectacle you won’t want to miss!

Introduction

Festival of the Marie – History and Development

Flight of the Angel – History 

Two Celebratory Poems 

Links (internal-external)


 

Introduction

Throughout history, Venice celebrated numerous feasts and events significant to its heritage. One such event was the Festa delle Marie, commemorating the daring rescue of twelve young brides, along with their dowries, who were kidnapped by pirates during their communal wedding at the basilica of San Pietro di Castello.

Since the 9th century, on February 2nd each year, the Serenissima would bless couples intending to marry within the year. Recognizing that not all could afford the costs of a wedding and setting up a new household, the authorities, inspired by the successful recovery of the abducted brides, instituted a tradition.

Wealthy Venetian families were to provide annually, to twelve deserving but impoverished Venetian girls; the magnificance of rich bridal dowries, fine clothes and jewels.

Canaletto. “Night time Celebration Outside the Church of San Pietro di Castello” (1755).

The Festa della Marie, is traditionally linked to the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which is celebrated on February 2nd and was associated with the blessing of marriages on this day. Since 1999, the tradition has been adapted and incorporated into the Venice Carnival celebrations.

The original tradition has evolved into the Carnival, spanning three distinct events throughout the Carnival period. Surrounding these events, attendees are entertained by a diverse array of activities; including historical re-enactments, circus acts, masked parades and musical concerts.

  1. The opening parade of the Marie, held on a Saturday, starts at the church of San Pietro in Castello; the original bishop’s seat. The twelve girls who are selected a few weeks beforehand, are accompanied by hundreds in historical dress; proceed along the Via Garibaldi, the Riva degli Schiavoni and finally enters the Piazza San Marco. The twelve young girls are received on the main stage by the Master of Ceremonies and the Doge. It is important to note, that the actual date can vary as part of the Venice Carnival festivities. For example, in 2023, the Festa delle Marie took place on February 11th. 2023, February 18th in 2024 and in 2025, it is scheduled for February 22nd. The parade is scheduled to start at 2.30pm and enters the Piazza at 4.00pm.
  2. Sunday the following day, brings one of the most spectacular events of the Carnival – the “Flight of the Angel” (“Il Volo dell’Angelo”). As the clock strikes mid-day, the young girl elected the preceeding year as “Maria of the Carnival”; glides from the top of the bell-tower, towards the stage in the Piazza.
  3.  The last day of the Carnival,  the Tuesday known as “Mardì Gras”, culminates with the proclamation of the “Maria del Carnevale”, that takes place in St Marks Square. Throughout the Carnival, the Marie are judged, not only on their beauty; but on their personality and ability to radiate the original spirit of the traditional festival. The winner’s prize is the honour of being the Angel; who descends from the from the bell tower of St. Mark, during next year’s Carnival. The twelve Marie arrive by boat and then exit from Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio. The crowning ceremony for the winning Maria, commences at 4pm.

Venice Carnival always finishes on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday; which was the last allowed day when people could indulge in gluttony, excess and debauchery, before the 40 days of Lent begins!

 

Festa della Marie History and Development

Venice first became a bishopric in 774 and its religious seat was at the basilica of San Pietro di Castello; located on a small island named “Olivolo”, on the north-eastern outer edge of the Venice.

In the early times of the Venetian state, the bishopric of Venice held a communal wedding for all the betrothed couples for the year; with the grand event taking place on the last day of January. All the brides presented themselves in church, having with them their “arcella”;  a small ark or box, containing their dowry.

After the arrival of their grooms and families, they took mass and received blessings from the bishop. Afterwards, the newly wedded couples and respective families headed to their homes in separate processions, for their wedding feasts.

The Festa delle Marie however, also commemorates a dramatic rescue….

The story of a terrible event starts in the early 940’s, when the annual wedding ceremony was about to start – the brides with their dowries, were already in the church and the Doge was present.

Suddenly, several galleys (small, rowed warships), neared the island. Pirates, believed to hail from Trieste, Istria, or Dalmatia, attacked and plundered the church. They rounded up the frightened and bewildered girls, along with their dowries, and swiftly set sail in their vessels.

Legend has it that the alarm spread throughout the city, prompting citizens and grooms alike to arm themselves and secure any available galleys and crews.

The Venetians caught up with and attacked the pirates just south of Caorle; some 50 km north of Venice. The Venetians killed all the pirates and threw their bodies overboard; so they would not receive a Christian burial. The port where they were saved was called “porto delle donzelle” and still is to this day.

The brides and the dowries returned to Venice with their saviours. The communal weddings were held the following day, on February 2nd, which corresponded with the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

“La Festa delle Marie”. Ludovico Raymond (Date unknown, but stylistically suggestive of the 19th century.)

A feast popular with the people.

After the liberation of the brides of Olivolo, the Doge established a tradition where, annually on February 2nd, the state provided a dowry to twelve virtuous but impoverished girls, who were soon referred to as the “Twelve Maries.”

The task of choosing these lucky girls eventually shifted to the “sestieri” (districts), each selecting two girls. The parishes then vied to adorn the girls in the most extravagant attire.

The feast garnered immense popularity among the common folk, as it annually elevated some of their daughters to the upper echelons of society, treating them like royalty. Originating from the less affluent strata, these girls became the focus of high-profile philanthropy by the Venetian elite, who sponsored both the young women and the lavish feasts. The festivities spanned an entire eight days.

The Doge welcomed the chosen young women, adorned in lavish attire. Following the year 1204, they had the privilege of wearing jewelry taken from the treasury of the Basilica di San Marco, which was acquired during the looting of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade.

“The Campo Santa Maria Formosa” (detail). Bernardo Bellotto c.1742.

On the final day, February 2nd, the young women accompanied the Doge to attend mass at the church of Santa Maria Formosa, linked to the box-makers’ guild, the “cassellari.” The concluding ceremony took place in the church of San Pietro di Castello, the birthplace of the festival, where the young women ultimately received their dowries.

The festivities featured splendid boat parades along the Grand Canal, dignified processions, bullfights in the town squares, and lavish feasts and dances, all underwritten by affluent patricians.

“Festival of the Blessed Virgin Mary on the 2nd February at Santa Maria Formosa, Venice” (oil on canvas) by  Gabriele Bella (1730-1799).

Slow decline and death of the Feast

However over time, conflicts started to appear, fuelled rising costs of the celebrations to the patriarchy and also the selection of the brides; with competition between parishes sometimes deteriorating into physical violence and the overly lustful attention given to the parading girls by some of the men!

Consequently, a series laws were introduced  in 1120 and 1143; regulating the celebrations. In 1271, a law reduced the number of girls honoured to four and eventually all were replaced wooden statues. Finallly in 1343, the girls were replaced by decorated and painted wooden silhouettes, which were given the name of “Maria de tola” (wooden woman): the expression soon passed to indicate a woman without feminine attributes and lacking in emotions; from which a small-scaled version, termed “marionette” is said to derive from.

As the event became purely symbolic, the changes were not well-received by the common folk in the sestieri and parishes. In expressing their anger, they began to hurl various objects, including turnips, at the dignitaries involved in the events. Consequently, more laws were enacted to ban the throwing of turnips during the eight-day celebration, leading to a decline in the feast’s popular appeal.

During the War of Chioggia in 1379–80, celebrations were halted as the Genovese fleet managed to infiltrate the lagoon, sacking and occupying Poveglia, Malamocco, and Chioggia. This war escalated into an existential struggle for the Republic of Venice, leading to significant expenditures and debts. Despite Venice’s eventual recapture of their territories, the customary feasts were discontinued.

The sole remnant of the eight-day festivities was the Doge’s yearly visit to the Cassellari, the box-makers’ guild at Santa Maria Formosa, persisting until 1797.

Following a hiatus of seven centuries, the Feast of the Marie was revived in 1999, reinstating it into the venerable customs of the Carnival celebrations.

 

Festa della Marie – History of the Flight of the Angel 

The tradition, known in Italian as “Volo dell’Angelo,” has been embedded in Venice’s history since the mid-16th century. It originated with a young Turkish acrobat’s audacious tightrope walk from a boat to the summit of St. Mark’s bell tower, and subsequently to the Doge’s Palace, as a tribute to the Doge. This act garnered such admiration that it turned into an annual celebration, initially called the “Svolo del Turco” (Flight of the Turk).

Over time, the event evolved to include professional tightrope walkers and later, young Venetians who took up the challenge. In the 18th century, acrobats were attached by metal rings to a rope and descended to the Doge’s Palace, where the Doge would reward their skill with gifts and money. This performance became known as the “Flight of the Angel”.

Tragedy struck in 1759, when an acrobat plummeted to the ground during the event. Following this incident, a live performer was substituted with a large wooden dove that dispersed flowers and confetti among the spectators; leading to the event being renamed the “Flight of the Colombina” (little dove).

 

Incorporation into the Carnival, is a modern ritual established in 1999 by the visionary director Bruno Tosi. The young Venetian woman, crowned as “Mary of the Carnival” the previous year; performs the “Flight of the Angel”.  Descending gracefully along a rope from the San Marco bell tower to the centre of the square, she pays homage to the Doge amidst the cheers of the crowd and participants. This descent symbolizes the Doge’s acceptance and the Angel’s blessing upon the city.

The Festa delle Marie stands out as a significant cultural event, showcasing the deep-rooted history and traditions of Venice. This vibrant and colorful celebration attracts people worldwide. Should you be in Venice during this time, it’s an experience you wouldn’t want to miss!

<<<<< Carnival returns in 2025, from February 14th until March 4th >>>>>

 

Two Celebratory Poems.

“Flight of the Angel”.

From San Marco’s lofty height,
An angel descends, pure and bright,
Gliding down on silken thread,
A vision in white, gold, and red.

The crowd below in awe does stare,
At the figure floating through the air,
With open arms and fearless gaze,
She blesses the city, sets hearts ablaze.

Her gown billows in gentle sway,
As she makes her celestial way,
To touch the earth, a kiss so light,
Amidst the carnival’s delight.

The bells chime in joyous sound,
As her feet finally grace the ground,
The ‘Flight of the Angel’, a sight so rare,
A moment in time, beyond compare.

So let us cheer and let us sing,
For the beauty and thrill that angels bring,
In Venice, where dreams are woven tight,
Begins the carnival, with an angel’s flight.

 

The Spirit of the “Festa delle Marie”.

In Venice, where masks and hearts entwine,
The ‘Festa delle Marie’ begins to shine,
A tale of brides from days of yore,
When pirates sought their beauty to adore.

Twelve maidens fair, in gowns arrayed,
Through cobbled streets, they form a parade,
A tribute to the past, so rich and rare,
A procession of grace, beyond compare.

From San Pietro’s ancient, hallowed halls,
To the Doge’s Palace, where history calls,
They journey forth, a sight divine,
In the city of canals, where dreams align.

Each step they take, a story told,
Of heritage, of courage, of virtues bold,
The ‘Festa delle Marie’, a living art,
A celebration of culture, close to heart.

The bells ring out, the people cheer,
For the maidens of Venice, we hold dear,
In their honour, we dance and sing,
For the joy and unity they bring.

So let the ‘Festa’ in splendour bloom,
In the city where love finds its room,
For in Venice, beauty does not vary,
Blessed be the day, the ‘Festa delle Marie’.


 

Links (internalexternal)

Carnevale di Venezia 2024 – Officiale Site 

Facebook Video|: Watch the “Festa delle Marie”, the oldest celebration in Venice by Andrea Rizzo!

“History of Venetian Masks”

“The Venice Carnival”

“Venice Carnival – Events”

All my posts not part of the Carnival, in the category of   “Festival-Regattas-Events”


 

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