In medieval Venice, 2 February, Candlemas or the feast of the Purification of the Virgin, was the date of the Festa delle Marie (Festival of the Marys), one of the most important official events of the carnival.
As we saw in the last post, on 31 January, twelve rich families from around the city exhibited a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, richly adorned in clothes and jewels, in their palazzi. On 2 February, these would be taken in a grand waterborne procession to the church of San Pietro in Castello, which until 1797 was the cathedral of Venice. Here they would enter the church for a mass with the Patriarch (the archbishop) of Venice before once again being carried by boat, this time with the Patriarch, to the Riva degli Schiavoni. From here they would be carried into the Basilica San Marco for a mass with the Doge. After mass, the Doge, Patriarch and Marys would get back on the boats and the procession would go up the Grand Canal to Rialto and then up side canals to Santa Maria Formosa where there would be a third and final mass.
The statues of Mary became known as Marioni, ‘big Marys’, and it’s said that small replicas were on sale as souvenirs during the festival. These were known as ‘little Marys’ or Marionette, which is where the modern word for a string puppet comes from.
Since it took place at carnival time, the festival could get quite rowdy. The night before, young men from the families often paraded their Mary through the streets showing off how it was more lavishly decorated than those of the other families, which often ended in fist fights. In 1339 a law was passed banning the throwing of fruit and vegetables at the statues, suggesting that the whole thing had degenerated into a game of skittles. In 1379, Venice went to war with Genoa and every available penny was needed for the war effort. The government took this as the opportunity to abolish the festival once and for all. All that remained in future years was an annual visit by the Doge to Santa Maria Formosa for a simple mass.
More than a hundred years later, a myth was created to explain why there had been such a festival. It involved a story in which every year, the state would sponsor the weddings of twelve poor girls at the cathedral of San Pietro in Castello. One year, the brides with their dowries were kidnapped by pirates from Trieste. The whole city mobilized and gave chase, but the brides (and their dowries) were eventually rescued by the casselleri (cabinet makers) of the parish of Santa Maria Formosa. As this story only appears in the Renaissance, it is clear that it was invented to explain the festival and that the Marys had always been made of wood and represented the Virgin Mary.
In recent years a modern Festa delle Marie, which follows the myth rather than the historical version, has become part of the official Venice carnival. It involves a beauty contest for twelve Venetian girls who are carried from San Pietro in Castello to the Piazza San Marco before one is crowned the Maria of the year. This year it will take place tomorrow, February 3.
The picture at the top of this page is of an antiques shop in the Dorsoduro district of Venice, near the Accademia. The statues are eighteenth-century clothes mannequins, but for me they are very evocative of the original Festa delle Marie. They appear as ghostly reflections, projected onto the walls of the city, memories of the festival that once was.