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Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2014/15 posted by hidden europe on

There was often much ado around San Marco on Ascension Day. At least if Canaletto's celebrated paintings of Venice on the Feast of the Ascension are to be believed. The particular ceremony that caught Canaletto's attention was the annual dedication of the Venetian Republic to the Adriatic.

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Dear fellow travellers

Today is Ascension Day. Had you noticed? It is one of those public holidays across many countries in continental Europe which may surprise the unwary traveller. It is a day that traditionally comes with many rituals.

There was often much ado around San Marco on Ascension Day. At least if Canaletto's celebrated paintings of Venice on the Feast of the Ascension are to be believed. His 1740 painting, now in the National Gallery in London, shows the imposing elaborate facade of the Palazzo Ducale and the votive church of Santa Maria della Salute. Between the two, dominating the foreground and almost obscuring the entrance to the Grand Canal, are a mass of gondolas and other vessels, among them the Doge's bucentaur. Another Canaletto (painted about ten years earlier) shows the Doge's magnificent galley returning to shore at the end of the Ascension Day ceremonies in the Venetian Lagoon.

The particular ceremony that caught Canaletto's attention was the annual dedication of the Venetian Republic to the Adriatic. Sposalizio del Mare, a symbolic marriage to the sea, was a demonstration of Il Serenissima's maritime character - here was a republic which was wedded to the waves.

Venice has changed since Canaletto's day. Its maritime power has faded and nowadays Venice has a decidedly uneasy relationship with the sea. But on Ascension Day each year the civic authorities still hold a modest ceremony that recalls the lavish celebrations of Canaletto's day.

A number of coastal communities across Europe still mimic the Venetian Sposalizio del Mare, either on Ascension Day itself or over the following weekend. One of the most striking takes place at Cervia (on the coast of Emilia-Romagna near Ravenna) where the local bishop recalls the community's dedication to the sea by travelling out from the quayside on a boat to cast a wedding ring into the sea. A mighty crowd of locals are on hand ready to fish the ring out again, fervently believing that he who finds the ring (and it is invariably a he) will enjoy good fortune for the ensuing twelve months.

Water and fate are enduring Ascension Day themes. It is a day for the blessing of wells, and - so it was often said in parts of Wales - a day for quarry workers to stay at home. We are not sure that this was necessarily due to any special devotion to the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord; it was seemingly more a superstition that working on this day would mean a spate of awful accidents in the months thereafter. Better safe than sorry, so in 19th-century Wales some miners stayed at home on Ascension Day.

Today is very definitely a good day for fishing - so fish might perhaps take a less positive view of Ascension Day. But it has long been judged as a propitious day for a good catch on the local river. The story goes that fish follow the Lord's ascending example and ascend rivers today. Migrants from northern Germany and the Netherlands took their Ascension Day fishing habit with them to North America, where it still has a certain currency in Pennsylvania, particular in some Amish communities.

In and around Berlin, there are men who are inclined to sit on river banks and lake shores whether or not it is Ascension Day. But today they get a special sanction to head off with a few mates and a crate of beer to a place of their own choosing. Not, it must be said, because they want to go fishing. But rather because, throughout Germany, Fathers' Day is always celebrated on Ascension Day. It is a day when dads are indulged even more than normal, a day when no-one really expects them to discharge any serious paternal obligations. It is therefore the perfect day for a few beers. Which is probably what the doge thought each year as he returned in his bucentaur to San Marco after having yet again gone through the ceremony of wedding Venice to the sea.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.