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Historical Regatta: in the Grand Canal the ancient Venetian maritime tradition between races and historical re-enactments

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The Historical Regatta is the most traditional among the venetian events. It is a show that, each year the first Sunday of September, brings the ancient boats of the glorious past of Venice to the Grand Canal including passionate competitions and historical re-enactments. And, in 2020, this was the event that probably has repopulated the beautiful Venice, after a lockdown that saw the city completely free of tourists (and people).

For a city born on water, boats have always been indispensable means of survival, since it was with these that transport, communications and exchanges were carried out and from which depended the wellness of the city. Today, as then, the same importance is apllied on water vehicles.
However, the lagoon environment is not an easy place and the boats had to have a particular structure in order to be able to untangle themselves in the dense and intricate labyrinth of the canals. As a result, very special vehicles were created, whose use is exclusively Venetian. They are flat-bottomed boats that could sail in lagoon areas where the water is very low, but also narrow and tapered to be able to slip into narrow canals, all manoeuvrable with the oar. The fast pupparin, the mascarete used for fishing, and the caorilines used for freight transport are some examples.
Thus was born also the Venetian rowing, a unique lagoon-style rowing technique, according to which a boat was maneuvered by a single oarsman, standing on the bow, driving it with a smooth oar leaning against an open oarlock, called a forcola. The position of the oar on the fork gave the possibility to carry out all the different maneuvers necessary. Today the Venetian vogue is a sport much practiced in Laguna, which sees its climax with the Historical Regatta itself.

Historical Regatta in 1950

Apparently, the sumptuous event took place for the first time the 10th of January 1315 under the rule of the doge Giovanni Soranzo. The event is traced back also to the ancient and religious Feasts of the Marys, in which young girls were paraded in boats dressed for party (an event evoked also during the wonderful Venice’s Carnival, a tradition lasting over 900 years). But it is probable that the first race is much older, linked to the maritime life of the Venetian Republic in which it was necessary to train the sea crews well. Between religious and secular celebrations the Regatta took place over the centuries until the fall of the Serenissima to celebrate the military victories or to honour the foreign dignitaries, maintaining that spirit between playful and agonistic, between celebration and re-enactment of ancient glory, to which the Venetians were very close, even willing to finance it at its own expense in order to flaunt its own greatness.
The event was then resumed in the nineteenth century under the Austrian Government, when the concept of “sport” began to spread: it was decided to finance it with public money and to carry it out every year. But it was thanks to the Art Biennale of 1899 that the Regatta took shape as we live it today, when the word “Historical” was introduced and a more celebratory imprint was given to it with the introduction of the historical procession which then opens the various competitions.

A Canaletto’s paint

This of the historical procession is reminiscent of an ancient custom, when before the competitions boats paraded while launching the so-called “ballotte” (terracotta balls) to keep the order of the spectators huddled along the Grand Canal to watch the show. Despite today no balls are thrown, the historical procession that precedes the competitions is a spectacular re-enactment of the welcome parade that the Republic of the Serenissima reserved the 1489 to Caterina Corner, queen of Cyprus, who renounced the throne allowing in fact the annexation of the island to Venice, an event which marked the beginning of the Serenissima rule over the Mediterranean islands. Today, in a faithful and fascinating reconstruction of the glorious past of the Serenissima, dozens and dozens of boats typical of the sixteenth century parade, with figures in period costumes to represent all the high offices of the Venetian Judiciary, including the Doge and the Dogaressa, personified by Maria who, launching herself from the bell tower in St. Mark square, will open the next Carnival in the acclaimed “flight of the angel”.

But beyond the scenic re-enactments, the Historical Regatta is also an event deeply felt by the crews and the Venetians, which sees the best of the Venetian rowing compete. Today, in fact, it is made up of two different parts: the historical parade and the rowing boat races. If the first has now just a picturesque importance, memory of the distant economical and political greatness of Venice on the seas, the regattas represent still today the climax of the agonistic season in the world of the rowing alla veneta: a victory on this day for the rowers means to become a part of the history of this sport and, in a way, of Venice.

The Historical Regatta starts out with the colourful procession on water, formed by the Bissone, the Bucintoro and the boats of the venetian rowing clubs.
Then, different regattas divided by boat type will face each others, including the regatta of the youngster rowers on two-oared “pupparini”, very technical boats that challenge the ability of the promising young men.

Or the Women’s race on “mascarete”, a term that comes from the boat nose looking like the bauta, a traditional mask. These are light two-oared boats used in the old days by the courtesans.

Another race is the Men´s one on heavy six-oared “caorline”, river-transportation boats almost out of use nowadays, that were often furnishened with a sail while travelling through the lagoon.

To these are added the 8-oar galleons in which the young crews of the University of Cà Foscari and a foreign university challenge each other.
All boats are identified with a color, representing the six Sesteri of Venice and the islands of the Lagoon: white, canarin yellow, violet, light blue, red, green, orange, pink and brown.
Once the races were open to the citizens of all the Serenissima Republic possessions while today only venetian rowers take part in them.
The climax of the Venice Historical Regatta is the champions’ race on two-oared gondolini, light boats shaped as a very slim gondola, also called “Ferrari of the lagoon” for their speed. Unlike the regattas on the most popular lagoon boats, these competitions exalt the rowers technical abilities. This is the challenge that is more waited for by rowers, the one that lights up the venetian fans and has been strengthening in time the myth of the Regata Storica from an agonistic point of view.
Winning in “Canalasso”, as locals call the Grand Canal, is still today the most aspired wish of every racer, besides being the forbidden dream of many Venetians.
The Venetian rowing is also an ancient family tradition that has been handed down from generation to generation to commemorate the practice of vogue over time: men and women who have made history and who become myths, and who deserve a special “coronation”. Thus the titles of king and queen of the oar are born, attributes to the rowers who won at least 5 consecutive races.

As the tradition goes, the winners in the challenges of the Venice Historical Regatta are awarded the red, white, green and blue flags, which are the awards that in Venice take the place of medals.
Until few years ago a little living pig would parade on a gondola for its own in the historical parade.
Curious fact, Its passing along the boats was like a thermometer of the Venetians feeling towards the city government: when it wasn’t satisfying, the pig would be acclaimed with whistles and screams such as: “Here´s the Mayor, long live the Mayor!“.
However, the pig ceremony has been abolished since few years ago after the protests of some animal protection Organizations.
The Historical Regatta is a free event that you can watch from the banks of the Grand Canal.

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