Sunday, May 10


Miss Manners Explains the Festival of the Twelve Marys

From Judith Martin's hilarious No Vulgar Hotel: The Desire and Pursuit of Venice, an erudite title which manages two shout-outs to both Henry James and Baron Corvo, for a book which reads like a travel guide compiled by the dream team of Edith Wharton and Dave Barry:
Some of the festivals we ache to attend are no longer held. Such as the eight-day Festival of the Twelve Marys culminating on Candlemas, the liturgical celebration of the Purification of the Virgin.

Although Venice considered that she had a special relationship with the Virgin Mary, her attitude towards any holiday was, in the spirit of our modern Christmas, "What's in it for me?" In this case, the Venetian angle was the anniversary of a legendary event in which cabinetmakers from the parish of Santa Maria Formosa whopped a gang of pirates from Trieste who tried to steal a bunch of Venetian brides. And not only the brides, but hey, the boxes of dowry money the brides were clutching and the borrowed jewelry they were wearing. This remarkable rescue was celebrated for more than two hundred years, beginning in the mid-twelfth century, but then it got so rowdy that the republic had to squelch it. So we are several centuries too late.

But what an occasion it was. January 31 had long been set aside as the wedding day for twelve poor but deserving young women selected by state and communal authorities to receive dowries that instantly increased their romantic appeal. Two days later, February 2, is the anniversary of the Venetian response to those unexpected wedding guests. In any other culture's legends, it would have been princes who set things right. In the lore of labor-respecting Venice, it was neighborhood woodworkers who boarded the pirate chip, skewered the pirates, tossed them overboard, and scooped up the brides, boxes and jewels, all of which they reported to be still intact.

In the years thereafter, two out of sixty parishes would be chosen by the city to stage the celebration. A week of regattas, religious services, processions, and parties honored both the artisan-heroes, and, it being her day anyway, the Virgin Mary. Twelve life-sized wooden statues of the Virgin were commissioned by rich people from the two sponsoring parishes. They were sumptuously dressed and hung with jewels. [...]

First, the twelve figures were carried round in a parade led by [two priests]. [...] Upon arriving at the church of Santa Maria Formosa (formosa meaning buxom [sic!]) the two priests would reenact the Annunciation. Then the Twelve Marys were turned over to the young men of the winning parishes. This turned out to be a mistake. The boys thought it was a scream to spend the week rowing these virgns around town and mocking other parishes for not having been chosen. Nyah-nyah, the Madonna likes our parish better than yours, nyah-nyah. The results were predictable, and in 1339, the Republic passed a law making it illegal to throw turnips and apples at a statue of the Virgin.
Oh, those wacky Venetians.

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