The Departure of the Doge on Ascension
Day, c. 1770
The marriage of Venice with the sea
(Rose-Marie & Rainer Hagen)
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day
Oil on canvas, 66 x 100 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris
Every year on Ascension Day, in a symbolic act of union with the
sea, the Doge of Venice boarded the ship of state, a ceremonial
barge that was so heavily burdened with ornament, it was practically
unseaworthy. The weaker the Republic became, the more pompous the
ceremony, captured here by Francesco Guardi in 1770, only decades
before Venice finally lost its independent sovereignty.
The painting, measuring 67 x 101 cm, is now in the Louvre, Paris.
A few light clouds adorn a blue sky over Venice. The doge's palace
and the Campanile can be seen on the right, the churches of Santa
Maria della Salute and San Giorgio Maggiore in the centre and on the
left. The artist evidently set up his easel at a point now occupied
by the public gardens, the setting of today's Venice Art Biennale.
Francesco Guardi has compressed the panorama a little in order to
show as many famous buildings as possible.
The large ship floating in the harbour is the bucintoro, the
Venetian Republic's ship of state. The name originally meant "ship
of gold". The doge with his dignitaries and senators are on board to
enact the symbolic marriage of the head of state with the Adriatic,
a ceremony celebrated each year on Ascension Day.
This was the most important festival of the year, spread out over
two weeks to allow the Venetians to celebrate as befitted the
occasion. With masques permitted and theatres and the casino open,
tourists flocked to the city. A trades fair, offering Venetian
luxury goods, was mounted simultaneously. Ascension thus cleverly
combined business interest with a pleasurable springtime extension
of Carnival, officially opened with a popular, semi-religious
ceremony of state.
The work belongs to a series of twelve depictions of Venetian
festivals which Guardi probably painted for Doge Alvise Mocenigo IV.
the third last of the doges be-fore the annals of the Republic
closed. Mocenigo celebrated his first marriage with the sea in 1763.
As usual, the Venetians were entitled to inspect the bucintoro the
day before. Those who possessed boats joined a flotilla which, in a
manner resembling a wedding procession, accompanied the dream-ship
along its route. According to Goethe, the ship showed both "what the
Venetians were, and what they imagined themselves to be".
A golden parasol recalls Byzantium
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day (detail)
Many ships were richly decorated in those days, but none weighed
quite as heavily at the bows as the bucintoro. The lengthy,
projecting wooden beak, usually attached to galleys for the purpose
of ramming enemy ships, was here purely decorative; moreover, it was
even complemented by a second such extension. The upper beak,
ornamented with waves, seaweed and children, symbolized the sea,
while the lower one, with bushes and stones, and with Zephyr puffing
his cheeks, was the Earth. They joined in a gigantic bank of shells
upon which Justitia was enthroned.
Behind the latter, the doge himself would be practically invisible
were it not for his golden parasol. Whenever he left his palace on
official business, this ancient, oriental symbol of power was
carried along beside him, a reminder of the town's earliest days
when it was part of the Byzantine Empire. The marriage to the sea
itself harked back to the first centuries of the maritime Republic.
Originally the water was merely blessed by those on board, a
ceremony resembling that in which the coastal dwellers of antiquity
had asked for Nepune's clemency. Later, the Christians had adapted
the heathen custom to their own ends. The ceremony was followed by a
simple repast of chestnuts and red wine.
This altered again with Venice's rise to power. The ritual now began
to incorporate reminders of Venice's former triumphs. On Ascension
Day in 997 or 1000 (the exact date was a matter of dispute between
town chroniclers), the Doge Pietro Orseolo II put out to sea to
liberate the towns of the Dalmatian coast from pirates. The
operation was successful and marked the beginning of Venetian
hegemony over the Dalmatian coast. In 1177 Venice succeeded in
arbitrating between Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa and Pope Alexander
III. According to legend, the two greatest potentates of the age
held their conciliatory meeting in St. Mark's, thereby involuntarily
recognizing Venice's claim to dominion over the Adriatic. As a token
of his gratitude, the Pope is said to have presented the doge with a
consecrated ring, expressing the wish that he "marry the sea, just
as a man marries a woman to become her lord".
Venice in its infancy had begged for the sea's clemency; now it
presumed to declare itself the ruler of the waves. The religious
ceremony was transformed to an act of state in which the town
celebrated itself and its claims to power. Each year the doge had a
ring made that was identical to that given to him after his election
as an official symbol of his unity with the Republic, and each year
he would throw the ring to the waves, uttering the declaration: "We
wed ourselves to thee, O Sea, as a sign of our true and lasting
This avowal of lasting marital supremacy was the object of much
ridicule. When the Turks became powerful during the 16th century, it
was said that while Venice might be the sea's husband, Turkey was
her lover. The 18th-century Venetian writer Giacomo Casanova
commented that if the unseaworthy vessel were to sink "all Europe
would laugh at the tragic accident, saying the doge had finally
decided to consumate his marriage."
"The ship is a veritable
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day (detail)
For the lords and dignitaries of Venice to sail beyond the Lido m
the bucintoro would have been rash; the Lido itself was navigable
only on a comfortable breeze. According to Casanova, whether or not
the bucintoro left its dock at all depended "on the courage of the
Admiral of the Arsenal, who vouched for good weather with his head".
Thus laden with responsiblity, the official in question is seen in
the present picture standing on the roof of the ship, setting the
course with his commander's baton and leaning with his other hand
against the mast which, instead of a sail, carries a flag with the
emblem of the Venetian lion. The roof was hardly the best of places
whence to maintain control or give orders, but there was none better
to be had. The commander is flanked by two other admirals,
identifiable by their red coats. In wartime, admirals were not
permitted to command the Venetian fleet, since this was the
prerogative of patricians. High-ranking officers, on the other hand,
"were ordinary burghers who had won their colours at sea and were
made responsible for the various districts of the harbour, including
the shipyards, or Arsenal. Their most important public role came at
Ascencion, or La Sensa, as the Venetians called it, or whenever the
bucintoro was used to transport state visitors.
The Admiral of the Arsenal was a higher rank than other admirals,
for it was in his area of control that ships were built and housed;
the Arsenal was the shipping centre of Venice. The bucintoro, too,
had its own, stylish boathouse there, designed in 1547 by the
architect Michele Sanmicheli. Venice, in its heyday as a great,
seagoing power, had been home port to over 3000 seaworthy vessels,
almost all built in Venice herself. By the mid-18th century, there
were only 60 or 70, all of which were built at foreign shipyards.
The Dutch and English had developed better ships, forcing the
Venetians to buy from them if they wished to hold their own as
The Arsenal was once the most important industrial quarter in
Venice. The arsenalotti, or dockers, were employed by the
state, which, relying heavily on their services, treated them
accordingly. If it is true that they were not paid as highly as
workers at some private shipyards, they could not be dismissed
either. They were responsible for supplying a fire-fighting service
and guarding the three most important sites of the Republic: the
doge's Palace, the Mint and, of course, the Arsenal itself. Only
they were permitted to row the bucintoro, during which task they
sang elaborate madrigals.
The ship of state was a galley, a type of vessel that was known for
its seaworthiness. Unlike the bucintoro! "The ship is all
decoration,... all gilded carvings, a veritable monstrance, devoid
of all purpose beyond exhibition to the people of the
lordly heads of its rulers", wrote Goethe, and went on: "For it is
well known that people like their overlords adorned as sprucely as
The Venetians built a new bucintoro approximately once a century.
The ship painted by Guardi was launched in 1729, and cost 70,000
ducats. It was 35 metres long and 7.5 metres wide, with four men at
each oar. The enclosed upper deck was reserved for the senators.
The vessel's last voyage came in 1796, shortly before Napoleon's
troops occupied the town and brought the history of the maritime
Republic to an end. The Venetians were forced to stand by and watch
while the French put their "gilded" "decoration" to the torch.
Pleasure under the roof of a
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day (detail)
In Venice's heyday the bucintoro would be accompanied by some 4000
to 5000 vessels: fishing boats, gondolas and peote. The latter were
gilded gondolas of state with ornately carved cabins. The doge owned
three, using them on official occasions, or to meet royal visitors
to Venice who preferred to travel incognito. For official state
visits the bucintoro was towed from its dock at the Arsenal. Foreign
diplomats owned peote, too, attempting to outdo one another with the
splendour and number of the vessels in their possession.
The type of vessel known as the gondola gradually developed during
the 16th century. By the 18th century, their appearance was much as
it is today, with the exception that a larger number had roofs or
cabins; the need for protection was evidently felt more keenly than
the desire to see or be seen. Gondolas were used in much the same
way as coaches in other towns, for trysts and everyday transport.
"The gondola is a peaceful way to travel, allowing one to he back
safely, whether alone or with company, laughing, having fun, playing
games, enjoying oneself, doing whatever one wishes, and nothing one
will ever regret." This paean was written in the 16th century; even
then, the gondola, decked out with cushions, was seen as a "soft
shell of love" - a love nest. It is no accident that the verb "gondolar",
to "travel in a gondola", also means to "amuse oneself" in Venetian
Goethe, visiting Venice in 1786, also enjoyed the pleasures of
travelling by gondola. Having come all the way from Weimar, however,
where he had left Frau von Stein, he did not experience the vessel
as a love nest, but as a kind of mini-bucintoro: "Grown weary, I
took a seat in a gondola ... and, transported, suddenly was a ruler
of the Adriatic: a feeling every Venetian knows who lies back in his
Gondoliers wore a special costume, usually consisting of knee
breeches, white stockings and a red beret. When Venice was a leading
sea-going power, some 3000 gondoliers were employed by the
patricians; by Guardi's day there were only c. 300 left, sadly
depleted, like the number and wealth of the patricians themselves.
Gondoliers in private employ were expected to be especially
discreet, since they, more than anyone, knew where the individual
members of a family spent their time away from home, or where
letters and presents were taken. Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian writer of
comedies, described them as "blithe, contended, honest men of honour,
famed for courage and courtesy, always ready to share a joke, even
with their Excellencies". One French traveller had quite a
different, and rather more critical opinion, finding them "roguish,
debauched and hypocritical". But the Frenchman had probably hired a
public gondola, and cheating foreigners was practically a point of
honour among hired gondoliers.
The gondoliers in the foreground wearing blue coats and hats with
dangling gold coins were probably arsenalotti. They alone were
permitted to row the bucintoro, or to steer the doge's peote.
The arsenalotti had a special role at all state ceremonies: it was
they who carried the newly elected doge on their shoulders around
St. Mark's Square; and it was they, too, who held the torches at his
funeral, or who stood guard between the death of one doge and
election of the next, a time when the doge's palace was especially
vulnerable to thieves. On the eve of Ascension Day, the masters and
foremen of the arsenalotti were invited, together with the members
of the government, to take part in a festive repast at the doge's
From harsh reality to the illusion
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day (detail)
Those who did not accompany the bucintoro by boat stood at the edge
and watched. Many of the spectators wore traditional white masks
which covered only the upper part of the face, preserving anonymity
while allowing the wearer to speak freely. One function of the
masks, aided by capacious coats, scarves drawn over the head and
three-cornered hats, was to obliterate gender and class difference.
Social barriers seemed to vanish; tourists, too, looked much the
same as Venetians.
But it was not the unusually prolonged Carnival alone that made
Venice such a "must" on the "grand tour" itinerary of aristocrats
and art-obsessed, middle-class travellers. Goethe, for one, was
lavish with praise: "Everything around me is imbued with dignity, a
great work of collective human power, worthy of the respect due to a
splendid monument, not to a ruler, but to a people", he wrote,
continuing, "even if its lagoons gradually silt up and its foul
swamps exhale the ague, even with its merchant trade grown weak and
former power sapped, the visitor will find the physical and
spiritual consitution of the Republic none the less venerable. For,
like all temporary phenomena, Venice too is subject to the passage
Understandably, Venice was a place that inspired the traveller to
take home some souvenir of his visit. It was this need, too, that
provided the impulse for the painting of vedute, realistic "views"
of landscapes and cities. Vedute were cherished for their accuracy,
as well as for their small format. The latter quality meant they
could be easily stowed in a traveller's luggage, which in turn
encouraged sales. The veduta had its origins in 17th-century Rome
and spread to Venice in the 18th century. The first Venetian
vedutisti were Antonio Canaletto, followed by Guardi, probably one
of his pupils.
Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) worked for many years in a workshop he
shared with his brother Antonio (1698-1760), and historians of art
often have difficulty in telling their work apart. Francesco was not
elected to the Venetian Academy until relatively late in life, for
the veduta was not as highly regarded as the more traditional,
figural genres such as mythologies, histories and Biblical subjects.
Guardi sold his work at his workshop or in the marketplace, unless,
of course, they had been commissioned, such as his series of twelve
canvases showing the festivals of the doges.
Guardi's vedute differ from those of Canaletto in placing less
emphasis on line. Line in Guardi dissolves, while atmosphere
replaces the sobriety of Canaletto's realism, the latter's attention
to detail yielding to Guardi's fields of colour. The dramatists of
the day were turning away from reality, too, with Goldoni gradually
eclipsed by Carlo Gozzi: Goldoni was a realist whose work contained
scenes from everyday Venetian life, whereas Gozzi favoured fables
and fairy-tales, luring his public into a world of phantasmagoric
Evidently, neither tourists nor the Venetians themselves wished to
be accosted with images of real life, whether in paintings or on the
stage. Instead, they took refuge in fantasy, preferring not to look
behind the outward semblance of beauty. Art, like the Carnival, was
there to help them forget the harsh realities of everyday life. The
grand ceremony of Venice's marriage with the sea, too, was nothing
more than an extravagant expression of wishful thinking. In the last
decades of the Republic it was painted more than ever before.