08 September 2008

Regata Storica

Venetians love a rowing race! La Serenissima’s thriving regatta tradition has its roots in the tribal feuds between her citizens in early days, particularly the Nicolotti and the Castellani. Rowing competitions were established to replace their dangerous fistfights in the streets and on bridges. But historians reckon that city fathers also encouraged participation in regattas to ensure a steady supply of strong, skilled oarsmen for the republic’s warships.

Last September I arrived right in the middle of the Regata Storica, Venice’s historic parade of traditional boats, manned by costumed crews and other characters and followed by a series of rowing races for Venetians and mainlanders, all on the Grand Canal. Of course, I missed the whole thing. But yesterday, a whole year later, I finally got my chance to see it. What a thrill!

First, I had to find a spot to view the festivities – no simple task! Every inch of the Grand Canal gets snatched up early in the day, both on the fondamente (walkways along the Canal) and in the water. (This reminded me of nothing so much as the New York crowds gathering for Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade!) Once settled, we all waited in the hot sun for the parade to get underway.

I had hoped to get a good shot of the “doge and dogaressa” in their elegant red and gold boat with the winged lion at the stern, holding his sword upright. Alas, no luck: too many people and poles in my way! Ditto for the beautiful boats with a pair of life-size silver horses or a red-eyed dragon or a golden Lady Justice for their figureheads. But I did manage to snap this picture of the “Council of Ten” on their quaint boat.

Accompanying the fancy boats were watercraft of every size and description. I particularly noticed the boat of a team from the mainland, unique in that its oarsmen were all sitting down. After a year in Venice, I realize that rowing while seated will never look quite right to me again, nor will rowing with two oars! Where’s the skill? Where’s the sport?

After the parade comes the race for i giovanissimi – the under-13-year-olds, boys and girls, two of them to each pupparin, which is a small, low, snappy boat with a snooty stern, first created for maritime patrol work. These little kids are as fast as a shot, with very good form. Not surprising: I see them practicing all the time after school lets out.

Next it’s le donne – the women, two of them to each mascareta, another smart little craft, slightly deeper and more modest in silhouette. The mascarete were traditionally used for fishing and lagoon transport, but they’re also distinctive in that they were once the preferred boat of masked Venetian prostitutes. (If you would enjoy some Venice lore that’s a bit risqué, ask me to tell you about the Traghetto del Buso – the “ferry of the hole” – at the foot of Rialto Bridge!)

When the gals have sped past, the six-man teams show off their skill in caorline – wider, flattish, snub-nose workboats used since the 1600’s to bring produce to market from the outer islands. There’s a terrific lot of cheering and shouting from the sidelines for these fellows. In a town as small as this, almost everybody knows somebody in almost every boat.

And then the crowd grows more serious because it’s time for the highly competitive race of the gondolieri, by twos and also in pupparini. There are prizes for the first four pairs to complete the course, the fourth prize being a pig, an animal thought to be a bit slow. Originally, fourth prize winners received a live piglet, which they would later eat! But nowadays a Murano artisan crafts a glass pig just for the occasion (and, of course, gets a plug in the regatta’s publicity materials).

All in all, it was a lovely day. I’m especially pleased that I finally got a glimpse of my cobbler and his canottieri friends in their 18-oared disdottona, the longest of all Venetian boats. I’ve mentioned it here before. Now I can show it to you. Che bella la barca! Che bella la regatta!