|Charles Vacher, The fête of the Marriage of the Adriatic, Venice, 1848|
The "Marriage of the Adriatic," or more correctly "Marriage of the Sea" (Sposalizio del Mar) was a ceremony symbolizing the maritime dominion of Venice. The ceremony, established about A.D. 1000 to commemorate the Doge Orseolo II.'s conquest of Dalmatia, was originally one of supplication and placation, Ascension Day (Thursday in the sixth week following Easter Sunday) being chosen as that on which the Doge had set out on his expedition. The form it took was a solemn procession of boats, headed by the Doge's maesta nave, afterwards the Bucentaur (from 1311) out to sea by the Lido port.
A prayer was offered that "for us and all who sail thereon the sea may be calm and quiet," whereupon the Doge and the others were solemnly aspersed with holy water, the rest of which was thrown into the sea while the priests chanted "Purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean." To this ancient ceremony a sacramental character was given by Pope Alexander III. in 1177, in return for the services rendered by Venice in the struggle against the emperor Frederick I. The pope drew a ring from his finger and, giving it to the Doge, bade him cast such a one into the sea each year on Ascension day, and so wed the sea. Henceforth the ceremonial, instead of placatory and expiatory, became nuptial. Every year the Doge dropped a consecrated ring into the sea, and with the words Desponsamus te, mare (We wed thee, sea) declared Venice and the sea to be indissolubly one (see H. F. Brown, Venice, London, 1893, pp. 69, 110).
In the Arsenal of Venice is still the vast covered shipyard which once housed the Doge's fabulous barge called Bucintoro (Bucentaur). It was normally stored above its slipway to be launched into the water, after caulking and refitting, just before civil and religious ceremonies. The most important of these was the sensa (Ascension Day), when the Doge accompanied by the signoria went aboard for this visit to San Nicolò di Lido to celebrate the traditional desponsatio (marriage) with the sea up to 1789.
The name bucintoro is derived from the Ital. buzino d'oro, "golden bark," latinized in the middle ages as bucentaurus on the analogy of a supposed Gr. Oovth'raupos, ox-centaur (from ,ous and itvravpos). This led to the explanation of the name as derived from the head of an ox having served as the galley's figurehead. This derivation is, however, fanciful; the name bucentaurus is unknown in ancient mythology, and the figurehead of the bucentaurs, of which representations have come down to us, is the lion of St Mark.
The name bucentaur seems, indeed, to have been given to any great and sumptuous Venetian galley. Du Cange (Gloss., s.v. "Bucentaurus") quotes from the chronicle of the Doge Andrea Dandolo (d. 1 354): cum uno artificioso et solemni Bucentauro, super quo venit usque ad S. Clementem, quo jam pervenerat principalior et solemnior Bucentaurus cum consiliariis, &c.
The etymology of Bucintoro is uncertain, as is the number of the Doge's ships that succeeded one another through the centuries. Only four are know[n] for sure, although the ancient chronicles recount the existence of "a ducal Ship", perhaps derived from a similar Byzantine tradition preceding the historical encounter at Venice in 1177 between Emperor Frederik Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III, period to which later hagiographies attribute the first Bucentaur.
It is probable, however, that in remote times for ceremonies in the lagoons the Venetian Doge was assigned simply a small gallery chosen from those comprising the naval fleet of the stato da mar.
With the passing of the centuries, and the Serenissima's increasing power, it was logical, for reasons of national prestige, that they should wish to give greater magnificence to the chief of State by reserving a special ship for him, as is reported in the Promissioni (sacramental formulas spoken by the Doge when he was sworn in) of Doge Rainiero Zeno of 1252 and subsequently in those of Lorenzo Tiepolo (1268) and Giovanni Soranzo (1312), which make repeated mention of the construction of a Bucentaurum in the Arsenal.