La festa delle Marie: Wedding sponsoring by Venice

According to a legend, all venetian weddings were celebrated (under the reign of the doge Pietro Candiano) once a year on the same day (early „mormon-ity“?): A brides-procession started from the Arsenale to continue on the Rio delle Vergini (River of Virgins) and to finish at the church of San Pietro di Castello, where the bridegrooms were already waiting.

However, on the 31st of January in 944 the procession was disturbed by some pirates who kidnapped the brides and stole their marriage portions escaping to the bay of Caorle, still called Porto delle donzelle (Port of the Damsels). It didn’t take the Venetians very long to make out their hideout and in the end they were able to bring all the girls and their marriage portions back to Venice.

Carnival ballo
Incisione di G. Franco Source: “Guida insolita di Venezia” p.104

To commemorate this memorable victory, 12 noble venetian families were nominated to pay every year the marriage portion of the 12 most beautiful (and poor) girls in Venice: Those 12 beauties were called „Marie“, as the fleet turned back on the 2nd of February – the day of the Purificazione di Maria (Purification of Mary) – after the combat in the bay of Caorle.

From this day on, each and every year, 12 girls were brought to the church San Pietro di Castello (on the 2nd of February) to receive the blessing of the bishop and afterwards to the Basilica of St Mark to meet the Doge. But the festivity got more and more out of control: The 12 „Marie“ were literally covered with jewelry (and provided with other wealth) what led to enviousness and conflicts and so it was getting more and more difficult for the jury to choose the winners of the competition as the winning girls were set up for life!

That’s the reason why in 1272 the number of the Marie was reduced from 12 to 4, then to 3 and in the end they were replaced by 12 over-life-sized wooden figures, called marione because of their size.

But the venetian business sense prevailed sooner or later and so people were in the end able to buy wooden miniatures of the Marie, the so called marionette: That’s right guys, the string puppets owe their name to a venetian tradition.

The festa delle Marie is nowadays celebrated during carnival season in Venice and the girl who wins the contest has the possibility to be the protagonist of the Angel’s Flight (Volo dell’Angelo) and to fly down from the top of the bell tower in San Marco.