Water is the element that most characterises Venice and it is no coincidence that the most famous and spectacular festivity in the city takes place on the waters of the Grand Canal. The spectacular eventstarts with a magnificent historical procession consisting of splendid,elaborately carved boats complete with hundreds od figures in gorgeous brocadecostumes.
Even now the Regata Storica is one of the most spectacular, picturesque and moving events of Venetian life, capable of both charming the tourists and exciting the locals.
A historical procession commemorates the welcome given to Caterina Cornaro, wife of the King of Cyprus, in 1489 after she renounced her throne in favour of Venice. It is a procession of 16th century style boats, with the famous Bucintoro, the boat representing the Serenissima, at its head.
Then comes the competition. The spectators participate with gusto and shouts of encouragement during the sporting events.
A City on Water The first description of the inhabitants on the lagoon comes from the 6th century AD and was written by the Roman Cassiodoro:
"It appears as though you slide across fields with your boats because from afar you cannot discern the canals from the sandbanks... and whilst in other cities you tether animals to the front of the house, you, with your houses of wicker and reed, tether your boats".
Even in those days, the city's relationship with water was clear. It is a relationship that has distinguished Venice and her inhabitants ever since.
Since the beginning of its history, Venice has lived alongside water and transformed it into its major sources of income: salt extraction, fishing and river and maritime commercial traffic.
Over the centuries the city gradually extended its control of the seas and the ensuing commerce. In fact, the Adriatic was known as the Gulf of Venice.
The city's development brought with it a transformation in the natural environment: in order to grow, the city needed to make living space out of the water, orchards, fens, mud and sandbanks. More and more land was reclaimed thanks to millions of poles driven into the mud, which then became land to build on. An entire forest of upturned trees lies at the base of the city.
The Venetians have always placed the utmost importance on water and its regulation: for centuries they have controlled the flow of rivers, even diverting their outlets to prevent the slow but progressive flooding of the lagoon. Over the centuries, the flow of the Brenta, Dese, Sile and Piave rivers has undergone substantial diversions to allow Venice and its lagoon to survive.
Great attention was given to providing drinking water and its use was regulated by specially formed magistrates.
A City of Rowers Venice was, and to an extent still is, a city whose principal means of communication consisted of canals and the traffic was on water.
Rowing everywhere is a centuries-old form of transport and continues to survive to this day. Centuries ago, rowing was the ideal training for mariners working for the Venetian military and civil fleet and was indispensable for all Venetians.
All the patrician palaces had an entrance opening onto the street and another more important and magnificent one opening onto the canal. This is where gondolas were moored, ready to take their masters and guests around the city.
Venetian-style Rowing As they travelled by boat or ship, Venetians became able seamen and rowers, and were experts in understanding winds, currents and tides.
The surrounding environment forged and conditioned the methods of navigation and lagoon rowing.
The shallow seabed, the winding canals and the presence of sandbanks called for flat-bottomed boats without a keel. The need for maximum visibility to locate the most navigable routes led to stand-up rowing, while the need for using just one oar through the narrow city canals saw the creation of asymmetric boats that enabled this kind of rowing. The need to freely move the oar in order to push down on the shallow seabed or to slip down narrow canals led to the creation of an open rowlock, the forcola. For the same reasons, the rudder was also abandoned and substituted by the oar.
Gondoliers Before becoming a category exclusively dedicated to tourism, the gondoliers were the spirit of the city, acting as oar-wielding chauffeurs.
They either worked for a patrician family or were employed in public service and were available to anyone who wanted to reach any part of the city or lagoon.
This category, which was to become the very symbol of the city, for centuries constituted the heart of the spectacular regattas that were increasingly being organised in the city.
Birth of the Regatta The regata or rowing race is the most specifically Venetian of local competitive events and has always exerted considerable appeal for both Venetians and visitors.
The earliest historical evidence relates the races to the celebrations surrounding the festival of the Marys and date from the second half of the 13th Century. However, it is probable that similar events were already popular: Venice was essentially a seafaring city and ready reserves of expert oarsmen were a prime necessity.
The etymology of the term regata is uncertain. Some trace it to the word riga (line), others to the verb aurigare (to compete in a race); and others again to ramigium (rowing); in any case, the Venetian term "regata" entered the main European languages to denote a competitive event raced in boats.
During the Renaissance regate were organized mainly by the Compagnie della Calza (associations of young noblemen) but from the mid-16th Century, the Venetian government appointed specific noblemen - called direttori di regata - to arrange and supervise the races.
The Competition A typical regatta has always comprised various races using different kinds of boats and on the occasion of a regatta, the Lagoon in front of St. Mark's and the Grand Canal is always teeming with decorated craft of all kinds, full of passionately keen spectators.
To clear the course of the race and to keep order, the regatta used to be preceded by a fleet of bissone, typical long boats containing noblemen standing in the bows and armed with bows. Their job was to pelt the more unruly of the spectators with terracotta shot. Now the bissone still head the procession before the races, but they no longer perform a disciplinary function.
The Regata Storica as we know it now, with its commemorative cortege acting as a prelude to the competitions, was conceived at the end of the 19th century for the 3rd Biennale d'Arte as a way of offering another tourist attraction.
Famous Regattas Regate were more common in the past than now and were of two main types: challenge events between boatmen or gondoliers and regate grandi, organized as part of the celebrations for some religious or civic occasion.
For centuries, the regata was also a customary way of marking the accession of a new Doge and Dogaressa, the appointment of important public officials such as the Procuratori di San Marco and of welcoming distinguished visitors to the Serenissima Republic. Dignitaries honoured in this way included Beatrice d'Este in 1493, Anna de Foix, Queen of Hungary in 1502, Henry III of France in 1574, Frederick IX of Denmark in 1709 and the Crown Prince and Princess of Russia in 1782.
Not infrequently they were also organized and financed by foreign princes, a famous example being the regata of 1686, arranged at the wish of Duke Ernest August of Brunswick, a general who had fought bravely in the service of the Serenissima.
The Historical Procession This procession is a re-evocation of the welcome given to Caterina Cornaro, wife of the King of Cyprus, in 1489 after she renounced her throne in favour of Venice.It is a procession of 16th century style boats, with the famous Bucintoro, the boat representing the Serenissima, at its head.
This is followed by dozens of multi-coloured boats with gondoliers in period costume carrying the Doge and his wife, along with Caterina Cornaro, and the highest dignitaries from the Venetian Magistracy, faithfully reconstructing an event from the glorious past of the Marine Republic's, one of the most powerful and influential in the Mediterranean.
The Public Spectacle
Crowded along the banks, or in the floating stands, or even better in one of the boats moored along the Canal, the spectators participate with gusto and shouts of encouragement during the sporting events.
As the multi-coloured boats speed past thousands of spectators, crowded along the banks, or in the floating stands, or even better in one of the boats moored along the Canal, an incessant babble acts as the soundtrack to the competition, which has continued for a thousand years and is a perpetual reminder of Venice's close relationship with water, the element showing continuity between the past, present and future of the lagoon city.
The traditional reference points of the regatta are:
- the spagheto or cordin, the rope stretched across the starting point in front of the Public Gardens.
- the paleto, a pole driven into the centre of the Grand Canal in front of the Church of Sant'Andrea della Zirada, around which the boats must tum before going back up the course (the first boats round the paleto are traditionally those which take the pennants awarded to the winners).
- the machina, a construction erected on a richly carved, painted and gilded wooden raft, which marks the finish of the race and on which the prize-giving ceremonies are held.
The Gondola The Venetian boat par excellence, whose origin remains a mystery in spite of extensive research into the subject.
Once, gondolas were extravagantly decorated by their wealthy and titled owners, whose fondness for ostentation was curbed by a sumptuary edict dictating that henceforth they should all be painted black.
The rules for construction are extremely strict: the right side must be 24 millimetres narrower than the left (this assymetry is know as lai); the boat must measure 10.75 metres in length and have an internal breadth of 1.38 metres. The gondola is used exclusively for ferrying persons and for boat races. Eight different types of wood are used in its construction and it is made up of over 280 different parts. The only parts in metal are the characteristic "ferro" of the prow and the "risso" of the stern.
The "ferro" characterises the gondola's prow and guarantees the boat's longitudinal stability, acting as a counterbalance to the gondolier's weight.
Popular tradition has it that the anterior "pettini" represent the six neighbourhoods of the city and the posterior one represents the island of Giudecca; the double "S" curve is the Grand Canal and the lunette, positioned under a stylised doge's cap, is Rialto Bridge.
Gondolino Created and used exclusively for the Historical Regatta, the gondolino first raced in 1825. It was designed specifically to make the Regatta more competitive and exciting.
It is lighter and swifter than the gondola on which it is modelled. The current version measures 10.5 metres from end to end, whilst its bottom is 0.65 metres wide.
Caorlina Sixteen-century prints show that this working boat has faithfully preserved all its traditional features.
Although used for fishing (the nets marking out fishing grounds are spread with caorline da seragia), the boat serves mainly for trasporting choice fruit and vegetables from the islands to the city market.
Its distinguishing feature lies the identical shape of the bow and stern, which are elongated and have no boom. The name of the boat suggests that it originally came from Caorle.
Mascareta A lighter version of the sandolo, used for fishing, racing and boating excursions on the lagoon.
Its length (6-8 metres)varies according to the number of oarsmen (1-4 oars).
It appears to have been named after the masked prostitutes who often used this type of craft.
Pupparin A speedy vessel once used for maritime surveillance or kept by members of the aristocracy as a town boat (barca da casada).
The poppa (stern) from which the vessel takes its name is expecially prominent.
Rowed with up to four oars, it varies in length from 9 to 10 meters.
The slender, pointed hull and boldly pronunced bow make the pupparin a refined and elegant craft.
The Forcola This is the rowlock on which the oar rests.
Its characteristic form, the result of centuries of experimentation, gives it the appearance of a sculpture rather than a utensil.
Nothing is left to chance: each curve, each shape, each corner has a precise function. For example, the gondolier uses at least eight different points of the forcola.
Each boat uses a specific forcola for the prow and another for the stern, as they have different measurements.
The Oar It has a flat blade and is not fixed to the forcola so that it can be removed quickly when rowing along the narrow city canals.
It varies in length depending on the type of boat.
The oar is also used as a rudder in Venetian-style rowing and acts as a keel for the flat-bottomed boat.