Origins of the “Festa delle Marie” (Festival of the Twelve Marias)
One of the lesser known, but more ancient traditional festivals in Venice is the “Festa delle Marie” which acclaims the beauty of young Venetian girls in a union of history and legend.
This is one of the most traditional events of the Carnival of Venice that originally involved kidnapping and releasing twelve brides-to-be. However, it has since been revived and modernised.
From the beginning of the 9th century onwards, on 2 February, the day of the Purification of Mary (that’s why it was called the “Festa delle Marie”), all the young couples who got married in the Church of San Pietro di Castello received a blessing from the bishop.
On this occasion, twelve young girls selected from among the poorest and most beautiful of the city were loaned gold jewellery from the city’s treasure, while the wealthiest Venetian families provided them with a rich bridal dowry which was kept in beautifully decorated wooden boxes called “arcelle”.
In 946, while this ceremony was taking place in San Pietro, a group of Dalmatian pirates broke into the church and kidnapped the girls, taking possession of their precious arcelle.
The Doge immediately organised an expedition in pursuit of the pirates. They managed to reach the pirates in Caorle, where they attacked the kidnappers and killed them all, freeing the girls and their dowries, and returning them safely to Venice.
On their return to the lagoon, the Doge and the liberators were greeted by the citizens with great enthusiasm and it was decided to commemorate the event by instituting the “Festa delle Marie”.
The celebration involved choosing twelve girls, two for each district of Venice, dressing them in elegant clothes and parading them in a procession along the canals of the city.
Over the centuries, this festival slowly began to lose its appeal and eventually disappeared, but in 1999, the Italian journalist, Bruno Tosi decided to revive this celebration, and turned it into the procession of the “Festa delle Marie.” It is the opening event of the Carnival week as well as a special occasion to admire the traditional Venetian costumes.
Today the twelve girls aged between 18 and 28 years, parade from San Pietro di Castello to Piazza San Marco, accompanied by a procession of more than 300 people to commemorate and celebrate Venice’s glorious past, which does not know the slow and relentless passage of time.