The history of the Venetian Republic, sometimes called, the “Serene Republic”, is embodied in the Doge’s Palace. Massive, imposing, impressive, over the centuries it evolved and transformed from a fortified castle into a reflection and representation of the Republic’s undeniable wealth and rise to power.
Over the centuries the Palace was modified, reconstructed, remodeled, rebuilt and restored. Famous for combining the sacred and the profane, Venetians embellished their Palace with references from mythology, astrology, and the Bible as well as their own illustrious history.
From the time of the first Doge in 697 to the last in 1797, the Palace survived over ten centuries of fire, plagues, storms, earthquakes, and uprisings. Not only did the Palace become the home for the Doge (chief magistrate) but it was the seat of power. The Palace is where all the principal roles of government were housed and where the Venetian aristocratic ruling class assembled, ruled, administered and dispensed power and justice.
However, the “Serene Republic” wasn’t always all that serene. Gaining and maintaining dominion over the sea demanded all of her resources, human and otherwise. Dependent on the good graces of the sea, it was the Doge’s solemn and sacred duty to lead the annual “Marriage to the Sea” (Sposalizio del Mare). On Ascension Day (Festa del Sensa), the bucintoro or ship of state would lead a procession of boats into the basin. The Doge would toss a blessed wedding ring into the sea with the blessing, “We wed thee, sea, in the sign of the true and everlasting Lord”.
Today, Venice’s eternal union with the sea remains critical to her survival and, even though the last bucintoro was destroyed by Napoleon in 1798, the same vows are renewed to this day by the mayor.
Each time I leave Venice, even though I don’t toss a ring (or anything!) into her waters, I do make a wish for her protection until I return.
This article was originally published in Italian Notebook on May 14, 2014.