Competing Spectacles in the Venetian Festa delle Marie
By Thomas Devaney
Viator, Vol.39:1 (2008)
Abstract: This essay clarifies the ways in which a civic spectacle such as Venice’s lavish celebration of the Purification, the Feste delle Marie, functioned as an opportunity to articulate alternatives to the dominant understanding of the social order. Although intended to honor the Virgin and present Venice as united and prospering, the festival was repeatedly marred by disorderly behavior and ultimately abolished by the authorities. I examine contemporary sources, including Pace del Friuli’s Descriptio festis gloriosissime Virginis Marie and Boccaccio’s Decameron, to highlight a growing disjuncture during the fourteenth century between popular and official conceptions of the festival. Disruptive behavior at the festival was neither blasphemous nor spontaneous, but a public performance that endorsed a vision of Venetian society based on a neighborhood rather than a municipal identity, on competition instead of unity.
Introduction: In 1349, the Venetian Grand Council passed legislation that stated: “Since the Festa delle Marie has been organized for the reverence of God and of the Virgin, for the devotion and consolation of the whole land, it is necessary that scandal-provoking conduct cease … from now on, the throwing of turnips or any other object is, on pain of a fine of 100 deniers, banned for the duration of the festival.” The Festa delle Marie, or Festival of the Twelve Marys, was Venice’s distinctive celebration of the Purification of Mary on 2 February, observed from at least the mid-twelfth century until it was abolished in 1379. It was second in spectacle and expense only to the Marriage of the Sea among Venetian civic rituals, and featured grand processions, sumptuous displays of wealth, and lavish parties in private homes. A complex ensemble of ceremonies that lasted eight days, the celebration culminated in a waterborne procession centered on twelve wooden effigies of the Virgin dressed in gold cloth and decorated with gems, pearls, and golden crowns. Although intended to present Venice as united in its devotion to Mary and prospering under the benign influence of God, the festival had, by the early-fourteenth century, become a locus for the articulation of competing viewpoints on the nature of Venetian society.
Attempts to understand the meanings of the Festa delle Marie began with contemporary efforts to fix its origins. The thirteenth-century Chronicle of Marco claimed that the festival commemorated Venice’s defeat of the legendary Istrian pirate Gaiolus in the tenth century. This story, likely fictional, became the popular explanation for the origins of the festival and was retold and embellished by a number of authors. The most detailed version, from an anonymous chronicle of the late fifteenth century, claimed that 31 January had been marked since ancient times by a ritual in which twelve poor but honest girls received dowries and weddings at the cathedral of San Pietro di Castello. When a band of pirates abducted the girls and stole the gifts, the casselleri (probably cabinetmakers) of Santa Maria Formosa parish pursued the pirates, returning to Venice on 2 February, the Feast of the Purification of Mary, with brides and gifts intact. The doge rewarded their courage by promising to visit their parish church each year on that day. In this recounting of the Festa delle Marie, the Virgin Mary plays no role. Only the coincidence of the date of the victory and the provenance of the rescuers tied the annual celebration to her feast day.