["The New Fiera della Sensa", by Gabriel Bella - Venice] ["The Bucintoro in front of the St. Andrew’s Fort", anonymous]
The Festa della Sensa commemorates two Venetian victories, separated by nearly two centuries, one naval, the other diplomatic, but nonetheless with something in common.
The first dates back to the enterprise of Doge Pietro Orseolo, who departed on May 9th of the year 1000, Ascension Day, to succor the populations of Dalmatia threatened by the Slavs. This marked the beginning of the slow course undertaken by Venice for domination of the Adriatic Sea, to which it had tended ever since its origins, not so much for reasons of conquest, but for reasons of survival. Stopping the Slav expansion enabled the Venetian Republic to achieve this objective and territorial possession thus became superfluous, to the point that the Dalmatian cities paid only bland tributes, adjusted according to their own natural and economic resources.
To commemorate the arduous enterprise, the Festa della Sensa was created; first of all, it was restricted to the blessing of the Sea. This was originally an exclusively propitiatory rite, with a simple and modest ceremony.
It became more complex and splendid when the same occasion was used to commemorate another Venetian victory, but of a diplomatic nature. By this time, 1177, the two major European authorities signed a peace in Venice that marked the end of the centuries-old battle between the Papal State and the Empire: acting as mediator between Pope Alexander III and Frederick I Barbarossa was the Doge Sebastiano Ziani.
The Pope was very grateful to the Venetians and swamped the city with gifts, also donating to Doge Ziani a blessed ring pronouncing the words: "Accept this as a pledge of the sovereignty that you and your successors will have perpetually over the Sea" and, according to the historian Sanudo, there was also specific reference to a wedding "... that he marry the sea just as a man marries a woman, to become its master". Thus the initial visit to the sea and its blessing was transformed into an act of investiture and possession: by now, Venice’s domination over the Adriatic was acknowledged by the two major European powers of the time.
In addition, Pope Alexander III granted indulgences to all those who visited St. Mark’s Cathedral during the eight days (which were soon extended to 15) after Ascension Day; this attracted huge crowds to the city every year, so that already in 1180 the Republic, with a shrewd and intelligent move, decided to establish a fair where the products of the best local artisan trades were on show, together with the precious goods from the East. Because of the economic and social importance of this fair, it was decided that it should be held in the most prestigious of places, in St. Mark’s Square. In the beginning, the goods were on display in wooden huts protected with curtains. But as of 1307, it was decided that the exhibition should be contained in a sort of enclosure, that even Sansovino had a hand in, in 1534. In 1777, the enclosure was converted by the architect Bernardino Maccaruzzi into a great wooden building in the form of an ellipse, divided into four sectors with a double arcade: the inner arcade, protected from the weather, was for the rarer, finer goods, while the outer arcade was occupied by the less valuable artisan products. This building was admired particularly for its practical installation, it could be taken down in three days and reconstructed in five. But its columns, lined with paper and painted to simulate marble prompted the populace to coin the epigram "Archi de legno e colonnati in carta, idee de Roma e povertà de Sparta" (Arches of wood and colonnades of paper, the ideas of Rome and the poverty of Sparta).
The pomp and riches that with time made the Ascensions Day Fair famous all over Europe and the proud boast of the Venetians stemmed from the fact that the majority of the exhibitors were from among the multitude of valid artisans that lived and worked in the city.
This explains why, ever since the birth of Venice towards the 9th and 10th centuries, there are records of unions of members of the same profession. The first to form a corporation were the "casselleri", i.e. the men who made "arcelle", a sort of chest used by brides-to-be for storing their dowries. These were followed by the "caldereri" (kettle-makers) and the "mugnai" (bakers). Such corporations, born from the need to defend common interests, were called "Scuole". The term originally merely indicated a meeting place, then it came to mean the confraternity as a legal entity. In the beginning, these workers met before an altar inside one of the churches in the district where the majority of the members lived; then, over the years, many Scuole succeeded in acquiring real estate of their own because the wealth of the single corporations progressively grew thanks to taxes that each member paid to the organization and also to numerous donations in wills. In addition, the Scuole invested their capital in the building of houses to rent and of hospitals for their members, as well as in the creation of homes and in charitable works.