The bucentaur (bucintoro in Venetian) was the state galley of the doges of Venice. It was used every year on Ascension Day up to 1798 to take the doge out to the Adriatic Sea to perform the ceremony of wedding Venice to the sea.
Scholars believe there were four major barges, the first significant bucentaur having been built in 1311. The last and most magnificent of the historic bucentaurs made its maiden voyage in 1729 in the reign of Doge Alvise III Sebastiano Mocenigo. Depicted in paintings by Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, the ship was long and more than high. A two-deck floating palace, its main salon had a seating capacity of 90. The doge's throne was in the stern, and the prow bore a figurehead representing Justice with sword and scales. The barge was propelled by 168 oarsmen, and another 40 sailors were required to man it. The ship was destroyed in 1798 on Napoleon's orders to symbolize his victory in conquering Venice.
The name "bucentaur" seems, indeed, to have been given to any great and sumptuous Venetian galley. Du Cange quotes from the chronicle of the Doge Andrea Dandolo (reigned 1343–1354): "... cum uno artificioso et solemni Bucentauro, super quo venit usque ad S. Clementem, quo jam pervenerat principalior et solemnior Bucentaurus cum consiliariis, &c [... with a well-wrought and stately Bucentaur, upon which he came to San Clemente, where a more important and more stately Bucentaur had already arrived with his advisors, etc. ...]".
The bucentaur was used not only for the Marriage of the Sea ceremony, but also for other state functions such as festivals celebrating the Virgin Mary and the bearing of newly crowned dogaressas (the wives of doges) to the Doge's Palace. On 6 May 1401, a law was passed to prohibit the doge from making private use of the bucentaur.
Documents mention the construction of another bucentaur in 1449 larger than the 1311 one, but little is known about this vessel. The earliest known image of a bucentaur appeared in Jacopo de' Barbari's monumental woodcut Planta di Venezia (Map of Venice) which was published in 1500. This work pictured a bucentaur afloat in the Arsenale without oars or decoration save for a large wooden statue of Justice on the fore quarterdeck. A similar illustration was produced by Andrea Valvassore between 1517 and 1525.
This bucentaur was frequently referred to in Venetian chronicles. It was on the ship that on 15 July 1547 Henry II of France was conveyed with the doge down the Grand Canal to the Ca' Foscari where he stayed during his visit to Venice. The ship was also used to transport the newly crowned Dogaressa Morosina Morosini-Grimani to the Doge's Palace on 4 May 1597. This event was the subject of numerous etchings and paintings by Giacomo Franco, Andrea Vicentino, Sebastian Vrancsx and anonymous artists.
Despite Venice's economic and maritime decline, in 1601 at the behest of the Doge Marino Grimani, the Venetian Senate decided to have a new bucentaur built at the cost of 70,000 ducats; although the existing one was still in service, experts regarded it as too old. The designer of the new ship is unknown, but he was selected from among the most qualified marangoni (ships' carpenters) of the Arsenale. The work was supervised by Marco Antonio Memmo, the sovraprovveditore (overseer of the provveditore) of the Arsenale. The new vessel was approved and praised by all on its maiden voyage to the Lido with the newly elected Doge Leonardo Donato on Ascension Day, 10 May 1606.
The third barge was modelled after its predecessors, its decorations influenced by late-Renaissance forms. Contemporary illustrations show that the sides of the bucentaur were covered by mythical figures of sirens riding seahorses, and that the loggias were supported by curved dolphins amongst intertwined garlands and scrollwork taking on the form of monstrous hydras extending from the ends of the two bow spurs. It was once believed that most of the wooden sculptures, including a large statue of Mars, two lions of St. Mark positioned on either side of the stern, and the figurehead of Justice (dressed in apparel made by the San Daniele Monastery), were the work of the renowned Venetian sculptor Alessandro Vittoria, but research has revealed the names of the brothers Agostino and Marcantonio Vanini of Bassano who were praised as "authors of carvings of marvellous beauty". After more than a century of service, in 1719 a decision was made to demolish the ship.
The German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in his work Italienischen Reise (Italian Journey, 1816–1817) which was an account of his travels in Italy between 1786 and 1787, described the bucentaur on 5 October 1786 in these terms:
In 1798, Napoleon ordered this bucentaur to be destroyed, less for the sake of its golden decorations than as a political gesture to symbolize his victory in conquering the city. French soldiers broke up the carved wooden portions and the gold decorations of the ship into small pieces, carted them to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and set fire to them to recover the gold. The ship burned for three days, and French soldiers used 400 mules to carry away its gold. The decorative elements of the vessel that survived the flames are preserved in the Museo Civico Correr in Venice, and there is a detailed scale model of the vessel in the Arsenale. The hull survived and, renamed the Prama Hydra and armed with four cannons, was stationed at the mouth of the Lido's port where it served as a coastal battery. Subsequently, the ship was returned to the Arsenale and used as a prison ship until it was entirely destroyed in 1824.
The "Marriage of the Adriatic", or more correctly "Marriage of the Sea" (in Italian, Sposalizio del Mare), was a ceremony symbolizing the maritime dominion of Venice. The ceremony, established about 1000 to commemorate the Doge Pietro II Orseolo's conquest of Dalmatia, was originally one of supplication and placation, Ascension Day being chosen as that on which the doge set out on his expedition. The form it took was a solemn procession of boats, headed by the doge's nave (ship), from 1311 the Bucentaur, out to sea by the Lido port. A prayer was offered that "for us and all who sail thereon the sea may be calm and quiet", whereupon the doge and the others were solemnly aspersed with holy water, the rest of which was thrown into the sea while the priests chanted "Asperges me hyssopo, et mundabor" ("Sprinkle me with hyssop, and I will be clean" – Psalm 51:7). To this ancient ceremony a quasi-sacramental character was given by Pope Alexander III in 1177, in return for the services rendered by Venice in the struggle against the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I. The pope drew a ring from his finger and, giving it to the doge, bade him cast such a one into the sea each year on Ascension Day, and so wed the sea. Henceforth the ceremonial, instead of placatory and expiatory, became nuptial. Every year the doge dropped a consecrated ring into the sea, and with the Latin words "Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini" ("We wed thee, sea ...") declared Venice and the sea to be indissolubly one.
Fondazione Bucintoro hopes that the vessel will become "the most visited floating museum in the world", but also sees the project as a means to "help Venice recover its former glory and its old spirit". According to Paterno, "Invaded by so many million tourists, the city risks losing its identity, losing its cultural connection with its own history. It's not enough to live in the future, the city needs to connect with and remember its glorious past."