The Venetian Carnival returns recalling the abduction of the twelve Venetian novices that tells the birth of the celebration of the Festa delle Marie

4 February 2022

It was 1094 when for the first time its name appeared between the lines of a document written by the Doge Vitale Falier. Two centuries later an edict of the Serenissima proclaimed it an official public holiday, making it coincide with the day before the beginning of Lent. Thus, in 1296, the most sumptuous and amusing festival of the city has been born: the Venetian Carnival. Among masks and costumes, today the city is preparing to welcome, in the year of celebrations for the 1600 years since its foundation, the celebrations to honor the anniversary that made Venice famous all over the world. 

It was a time of entertainment and celebration before the beginning of the period of ecclesiastical fasting for Easter. Venetians and foreigners poured into the streets of the city to give life parties with music and wild dances, giving vent to tensions and disconnect hidden behind lavish disguises. Around the Carnival, legends and historical events have intertwined over the centuries, finding this time of year the perfect context in which to come to life. Among these, an anniversary has been handed down over the centuries, reaching us to represent the heart of the celebrations of the Venetian Carnival: the Festa delle Marie. 

It is the story of a rapture and a ransom, an ancient celebration, which dates back to the Middle Ages, when on February 2 the religious rite dedicated to the purification of the Virgin was honored. Here, thanks to the intrinsic nature of the city, the ritual paths of religious processions could cross the lagoon canals, allowing the typical Venetian boats, the “scuale”, to touch the water of the city, retracing its fishbone from head to tail. Behind the religious tradition, a story that has become history, made up of parties and maidens, comes alive in the streets and squares against the background of a festive Venice. 

Popular tradition tells of a kidnapping, which took place in 946 during the annual celebrations dedicated to the Virgin Maria, when twelve Venetian girls about to marry were kidnapped with their gifts in front of the Church of San Pietro di Castello. 

We are in the time of the Doge Pietro Candiano III and a group of Dalmatian Pirates breaks inro the church, decorated and illuminated on the occasion of the upcoming wedding, to the general dismay. The young girls are kidnapped and robbed of their joys, jealously guarded in colored wooden boxes and specially built for the occasion, the “arcelle”. A chase is promptly organized by the Doge, who takes the role of expedition leader: the Venetians quickly reach the kidnappers near Caorle, freeing the young and redeeming the gifts. Their return to Venice is full of pride, the Doge and the liberators are welcomed by the people with great celebrations and enthusiasm: the Festa delle Marie was born.

Since then, the anniversary has been celebrated, as a perennial memory of the event, with ways and rites that have followed, changing over time. For decades it was celebrated with a long procession through the city, and then became a feast lasting eight days, made up of regattas and entertainments organized by the Serenissima until, from the middle of the fourteenth century, fell into disuse.

After seven centuries of neglect, however, thanks to the well-known director and cultural operator Bruno Tosi, the celebration was recently revived and transformed into the pivotal event of the Venetian carnival, as well as a unique opportunity to admire the costumes of tradition. In the modern version, the festival is inaugurated by a spectacular procession composed of twelve girls and over three hundred people in masks who, to recall the kidnapping and liberation of the young brides, parade from San Pietro di Castello to Piazza San Marco.

At the end of the procession, among the young women a winner is proclaimed: dressed in a magnificent costume made for the occasion, she becomes the protagonist of the famous "Flight of the Angel".