This was one of the festivals the Venetians loved the most. This joyful celebration seems to have vanished in 1379. However it was reborn in a much reduced form a few centuries later.
Legend says that in 943 a.d. Venetians would celebrate all weddings on only one day in each year. The brides would depart in a water procession from the Arsenale on the canal "delle Vergini" to join their future husbands who were waiting for them at the church of San Nicolò at the Lido.
In that year pirates from Trieste or Dalmatia made a reckless raid on the procession, kidnapped the brides and stole their clothes and dowries. Being impatient to divide up the booty, the pirates did not took refuge in the labyrinth of their Dalmatian islands, but just hided themselves in the lagoon of Caorle nearby, where they were quickly found by a very angry rescue party from Venice.
The pirates were killed and the brides returned to the ceremony.
In the spirit of not wanting to divide the classes that always connotated the Serenissima, the Venetians decided, as a remember of the brilliant victory over the pirates, to call for 12 patriarchal families to present every year 12 of the most beautiful (in the sense of virtuous) young women from poor Venetian families with a dowry, these girls to be designated as "le Marie."
The ceremony took place each January. On the day of Purification the 12 young women would go to the church of San Pietro (of Castello), where at the end of the Mass the Bishop would bless the girls and escort them to San Marco to meet the Doge.
From there, the procession continued aboard the Doge's boat - the Bucintoro - up the Grand Canal towards the Rialto, with crowds of Venetians on the banks and on the terraces of palaces to watch them...
The procession concluded at Santa Maria Formosa, at that time the only church in town dedicated to the Mother of our Lord, patroness of the victory over the pirates. This was done under request of the Corporation of the "Casseleri" (packing cases builders) whose men distiguished in bravery duriong the rescue of the brides.
Abstracts from "Feste e Spettacoli" di G. Tassini, published by Filippi.
To understand the importance of this festival it is enough to say that Doge Pietro Orseolo, upon his death, left one-third of his estate to ensure the continuation of the Festa delle Marie, and that both Venetians and foreigners partecipants were so excited about the celebration that the Republic had to call for extra security measures.
In later years enthusiasm for the ceremony declined to such an extent that "le Marie" were substituted with twelve wooden figures, which the crowds then used for target practice. From this custom was born the saying "Maria de tola" (Maria of wood), meaning a woman was cold and stiff. An etymological interpretation may connect these puppets with the Italian word "marionetta" (puppet)
The festival was re-establishedin recent years, and is celebrated on two different occasions. The first is during Carnival, with the parade of twelve young Venetian women, of whom one is elected the most beautiful. The other is in June, during the Festival of San Pietro of Castello. During this festival a female regatta is organised, dedicated to young promises of the rowing.