Laatste update op 8 May 2020
The extraordinary ‘Festa delle spose e marie’ originates from a Venice tradition. Every year during Candlemas (2nd February) two brides from every city quarter – so 12 in total – would travel in a procession by boat from the Arsenal to Lido. There they would meet their fiancees and their guests in Chiesa San Nicolo op het Lido.* Next they would travel to the bishops church of the isle (nowadays Castello, San Pietro di Castello) for the wedding ceremony. The brides would receive a wedding gift in a custom made treasury – the arcella.
In the year 943, during doge Pietro Candiano, the procession was rudely disturbed. The Neretva-pirates, terror of the Adriatic sea, raided the procession at the lagune. They conquered the treasuries and abducted the brides. The legend says the craftsmen who made the treasuries would chase the pirates courageously. They succeeded in bringing back the unharmed brides as well as the wedding gifts for the ceremony. The pirates were killed on the spot. This act of valour had huge impact on the annual tradition.
12 dressed-up brides
As honouring the authorities dictated that henceforth annually twelve families of Venetian nobility had to see to a dowry for the twelve prettiest yet poorest girls, not wealthy enough to provide for a dowry themselves. These girls were the ‘Marias’. Don’t think the money was spent reluctantly. On the contrary: nobile families scuffeled to settle who could provide for the high priced costumes. They dipped into private savings and according to a law from 1302 even the immeasurable treasure of Saint Mark could be used to help making the girls look even prettier. First the girls would take part in a procession through the city. The next day the marriage would be consecrated in the bishops church in Castello. Afterwards the girls would travel to lagune by boat to San Marco, accompanied by the bishop and adherents. There the doge would receive the brides and after a second worship service, the procession wuld travel to Campo Santa Maria Formosa. Even the doge followed in his bucintoro, the state galley. Everyone in Venice would look forward to this event. The crowd would jostle at the shores to get a glimpse of the grandeur.
Church of the cassellieres
The church Santa Maria Formosa was important because the altar of the scuole of the cassellieres (craftsmen of the treasuries) was situated in this church. To honour the casselleri after their heroic act, the brides and the doge would visit the Chiesa Santa Maria Formosa annually. Wikipedia mentions that the church was built in 1491 by architect Codussi, but is not entirely correct: he rebuilt the church. The original church originates from the seventh century. It was erected on the spot that was shown to Saint Magno by the virgin Maria, desguised as a voluptuous (“formosa”) woman.
The downfall of a tradition
Through the centuries the marriage festivities became more and more important, pushing aside the religious background. This changed in the middle of the 14th century. Not real brides but beautifully dressed dolls were carried through the city, the wooden marionets. It is not clear if this change of direction was caused by the overwhelming interested of outside observers that required more and more security measures. However, the interest of the crowd diminished and in the end the event dissappeared. They threw tomatoes and other vegetables to the wooden dolls which led to a law forbidding to do this in 1349. In 1379 the feast of the maria’s (also known as Festa della dodici Marie) was abolished. What remained was the annual visit of the doge to the church at Campo Santa Maria Formosa.
The celebration may be restored in it’s old glory: nowadays there is a procession of twelve beautiful Venetians girls during the Carnevale in February. One of them is elected as prettiest. There is also a Maria feast in June, during the regatta of San Pietro di Castello, a rowing contest that involves young people and gives them the opportunity to gain experience.
* There is also being said that he brides were ambushed during a procession through the city itself. However, this version seems less logical because a pirate attack is to be expected at the lagune.