Venice Festival of the Twelve Marias

Venice Festival of the Twelve Marias

Venice Carnival Traditions Part I

The Twelve Marias during the Venice Carnival ©Vision/Vela
The Twelve Marias on St. Mark’s Square ©Vision/Vela

Carnival in Venice is something to behold. Apart from the hundreds of people in costumes and masks strolling the streets, posing in front of historic sites, Venetians have turned historical memories into an art form. One of the most colorful of these traditions is the Festival of the Twelve Marias, which opens the Carnival celebrations every year.

The Twelve Marias parading in Castello©Vision/Vela
Procession of the Twelve Marias ©Vision/Vela


The Festival of the Twelve Marias is one of the oldest in Venice. Starting in the 9th-century, the city held marriage ceremonies on 2 February, the day of Mary’s purification according to the Catholic Church. To encourage marriage, twelve beautiful Venetian girls of humble origins were selected from the local population. The nobility provided them with beautiful clothes and a dowry, including jewels from the Doge’s collection.

The girls and their fiancés gathered at the Church of San Pietro di Castello, the seat of the Bishop’s Palace of Olivolo. Each girl brought her dowry, contained in a specially built wooden box called an arcelle or capselle. After the wedding, the girls and their dowries traveled in a procession around the city from church to church until they ended up at the Doge’s Palace at a sumptuous banquet. The celebration concluded with the girls riding in the Bucintoro (the Doge’s ceremonial barge). The journey took them up the Grand Canal to the Rialto and then down the Canal of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi to the Church of Santa Maria Formosa for other celebrations.

Costumed Venetians on St. Mark's Square, ©BillGent
Historical reenactment, Festival of the Twelve Marias ©BillGent

In 973, Istrian pirates (notorious for kidnapping Venetians and using them as slaves) snatched the girls and their dowries. The Venetians, led by Doge Pietro Candiani III, mounted a rescue, killing the pirates near Caorle, freeing the girls, and recovering their dowries.

At some point, the clergy, who wanted to rein in the carnival atmosphere of the ceremony, replaced the girls with wooden effigies carved as silhouettes into large slabs of wood (called Marione de tola in the Venetian dialect). The Venetians were so angry that the real girls were not paraded around anymore, they took to throwing vegetables and stones at the wooden statues. As a result, the ceremony was abolished in 1379.

(The Venetians may not have liked the wooden Marione de tola, but the French did. They adopted the wooden silhouettes and turned them into marionettes – and now you know where the word originates.)

Marione de Tole, St. Mark's Square ©BillGent
Wooden effigies of the Twelve Marias ©BillGent


In 1999, Carnival organizers revived the Festival of the Twelve Marias as a historical reenactment. Now, every year, a panel chooses twelve young Venetian ladies, between 18 and 28 from a pool of 80-90 applicants. The winners are announced just before the start of Carnival, and the girls, dressed in opulent historical costumes, make their first public appearance at the Festival of the Twelve Marias.

The Festival is always held on the first day of Carnival. Starting at San Pietro di Castello, the girls are carried on litters by 12 teams of gondoliers in black and white shirts. Groups from the various historical societies, all dressed in period costumes accompany the Twelve Marias

Festival of the Marias historical reenactment ©BillGent
A costumed Crusader on St. Mark’s Square ©BillGent

The parade proceeds up Via Garibaldi, along the Riva degli Schiavoni to St. Mark’s Square, where the Marias are presented to the waiting Doge and city officials as well as the paparazzi and public.

Throughout Carnival, the Twelve Marias make appearances at public events and masked balls. A panel of judges assesses them on their demeanor, presence, and poise, announcing a winner at the end of Carnival. The lucky young woman becomes the “Angel” for the following year’s Flight of the Angel.

Starting the Flight of the Angel, Venice ©Vision/Vela
Bird’s eye View, Flight of the Angel, St. Mark’s Square ©Vison/Vela


The Flight of the Angel is another historical Venetian tradition. In the mid-1500s, during Carnival, a Turkish acrobat climbed to the belfry of St. Mark’s Bell Tower on a rope from a boat anchored on the pier. On his way down, he stopped off at the Doge’s Palace balcony. This feat, called the Flight of the Turk, became the precedent for the modern-day Flight of the Angel.

On the second day of Carnival, the previous year’s Maria descends from the 325-foot high St. Mark’s bell tower, suspended on a zip line. Dressed in an elaborate costume, to the sound of Luciano Pavarotti’s Ave Maria, she scatters confetti on the crowd below. The adoring crowd cheers as she lands on the stage to be greeted by the Doge and his entourage.

The 2018 Angel of Venice Carnival ©BillGent
The Flight of the Angel, Venice Carnival ©BillGent


In 2019 the Festival of the Twelve Marias will take place on Saturday, 23 February. The parade is expected to leave San Pietro di Castello at 1420 and arrive at Piazza San Marco at 1600. Security, especially around Piazza San Marco is always extremely tight during Carnival. It is best not to carry any large bags or backpacks.

Congratulating the new Venetian Angel ©Vision/Vela
Eliza Costantini, 2018 Angel congratulates Erika Chia, 2019 Angel ©Vision/Vela

The Flight of the Angel takes place on Sunday, 24 February at 1100. The winner of the 2018 Festival of the Marias is Erika Chia, who will fly down to the stage.

If you plan on watching the arrival of the Marias in Piazza San Marco, be sure to get there early to find a spot as close to the stage as possible. Ideally, if it is a sunny day, you want to be on the south side of the Piazza to avoid photographing into the sun as the Angel floats down. A zoom lens is advisable to capture both the details of the costumes and a close up of the Angel flying down to the stage.

More images of the Venice Carnival can be found at Allegria Photos.

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