Papal visit leads to gondolier smackdown


Perhaps your local gazette hasn’t mentioned it yet, but Pope Benedict XVI is planning a big trip soon. He’ll be touring Northeast Italy, and will be in or around Venice on May 7 and 8.

"King Henri III of France visiting Venice in 1574, escorted by Doge Alvise Mocenigo and met by the Patriarch Giovanni Trevisan," by Andrea Micheli "Vicentino." This is the kind of welcome everyone had come to expect.

Venice has a long and prodigious history of state visits — King Henry III of France and Poland, in 1574, was one of the more famous guests, just one of a seemingly infinite procession of princes, ambassadors, potentates, emperors and, of course, popes coming to see the sights, visit the doge, and usually ask for some favor, like money or soldiers. Reading the list of deluxe visitors over the centuries gives the impression that the main business of Venice was hosting foreign notables, while other activities such as running an empire filled the random empty moments, kind of like a hobby.

Yet His Imminence has aroused not only joy and excitement among the faithful, but tension and recrimination and a series of increasingly regrettable remarks among the city’s gondoliers concerning who is going to get to row him the approximately five minutes it takes to row from San Marco to the church of the Salute, and in what boat. By a mystic coincidence, gondoliers are also known as pope (POH-peh), because they row on the stern (poppa) of the gondola. I have no idea what this might portend.

"The reception of Cardinal Cesar d'Estrees 1726," by Luca Carlevaris. Just all part of a normal day.

Don’t suppose that the battle to transport the pontiff is any particular evidence that gondoliers are so pious. A pious gondolier would be a distant cousin to a pious illegal-clam fisherman, or a pious doctor of a cycling champion.  I’m not saying it’s impossible, just kind of unusual. But they do like to be the center of attention and, in fact, they’re used to being regarded as some sort of star.  At least to the damsels they may be so fortunate as to row around the canals.

Popes aren’t supposed to cause dissension, they’re supposed to resolve it. But Benedict has unwittingly set off a sort of collective seizure.

Pope John Paul II being rowed in the city's balotina by four "re del remo" in 1985; high astern is the legendary Gigio "Strigheta."

First: Luciano Pelliccioli, vice-president of the gondola station heads (and a gondolier) offered to join Aldo Reato, president of the gondola station heads (and a gondolier) to row His Sanctity in Luciano’s extremely elaborate and glamorous gondola.

No!! The cry went up.  Why should those two men profit by their position and crowd out equally (I mean, more) deserving gondoliers?  Why, indeed?

Furthermore!! Champion racer Roberto Busetto, never at a loss for an opinion (he isn’t a gondolier, but that’s a detail), objected on the grounds that if Luciano should ever think of selling his gondola, he could easily make a huge profit by marketing it as the gondola that had carried the pope.  Busetto gets five bonus points for crassness, though that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

Anyway, Luciano withdrew his offer of his gondola and himself.  Reato also withdrew, but the incessant calls have continued. There are 425 gondoliers and by now probably each of the remaining 423 has called him at least once.  Some of them have fantastic reasons to be chosen: “Padre Pio came to me in a dream and said you should pick me,” said one.  Another person suggested Giorgia Boscolo, the first woman gondolier.  That idea burnt up on reentry into reality.

Then somebody suggested the “Strigheta” brothers, Franco and Bruno, sons and heirs (and gondoliers) of one of the greatest racers/gondoliers of all time, Albino “Gigio” Dei Rossi, known as “Strigheta.” (He rowed not only one, but four popes in his day.) They’re loaded with credentials and nobody hates them, which helps.

Then somebody suggested a four-rower gondola, rowed by the current racing champions, the Vignottini and D’Este and Tezzat. I think the idea was that rowing the pope could somehow magically bring peace to these two savagely feuding pairs, though somebody else opined that it wasn’t appropriate to expect the Holy Father to resolve every little neighborhood squabble. In any case, the four men have declared their willingness to row the Pontifex Maximus together, which is already a big step forward.

Then somebody asked: Why should it be a gondola?  Excellent question, considering that the city of Venice owns a more capacious gondola-type boat called a balotina, on which Pope John Paul II was borne along the Grand Canal in 1985.

Then some daring person suggested using the “disdotona,” or 18-oar gondola, which belongs to the Querini rowing club, and which in my opinion is not only the most spectacular boat in the city, by far, but would provide 18 men the chance to Row for Holiness.

Naturally, this idea got nowhere, because nobody thought one club should be given preference over another.  We’ve all got great boats, the thinking goes — why them and not us?

Even when it's not doing anything, the "disdotona" is impressive. I think the pope would look splendid seated in the bow, what with the velvet drapery trailing in the water and all.

I’m surprised nobody has yet suggested using the “Serenissima,” the huge decorated bissona with a raised stern, making the pope easy to see plus providing space for his entourage and some trumpeters, if that seemed appropriate.  But so far no mention of this little coracle.

Which brought up the next question: Why should the rowers be gondoliers? Another useful point.  In the olden days, a visiting potentate — such as John Paul II — would be rowed by the necessary number of “re del remo,” men who had won the Regata Storica five years in succession.  There aren’t many of them, because it’s fiendishly hard to do.  That would instantly reduce the number of candidates to something manageable.

And by now there has been at least one practical joke.  Someone purporting to be Aldo Reato (president of the gondola station heads) called the Gazzettino and said the matter had been settled: Luciano’s fancy gondola was going to be used after all, rowed by Franco Girardello, a retired gondolier who goes by the nickname “Magna e dormi” (eat and sleep). This fantasy was quickly dispelled by all concerned except the anonymous prankster.

The "Serenissima" was born for this kind of event. Odd that so far nobody has suggested it.

The most recent bulletin is that the matter will be put to a secret vote among the gondoliers.  The mind rather reels.  Busetto thinks the papal gondola is going to cost the moon at resale?  How much is a gondolier’s vote going to be worth, at this point?  No checks, no credit cards.

Comments from bemused readers of the Gazzettino run from “The pope doesn’t care who rows him” to “What a farce” to”Actually, Padre Pio came to ME in a dream and said I should do it.”

A certain Riccardo made the following suggestion:

“Requirements for candidacy:

Never to have blasphemed; Never to have used foul language; Never to have spoken in a coarse tone of voice.  In the case of more than one valid candidate (doubtful), preference will be given to the one who has a good knowledge of the principles of Catholicism, and/or who has read at least one of the 16 chapters of the Gospel of St. Mark, patron saint of our city.”

This pastoral visit has been in the planning stages for at least three months — probably more — and yet here we are, at the last minute, dealing with the frenzied bleating of the flock.

Meaning no disrespect, I think it would have been better for everybody if they had given a crash course in rowing to a Rastafarian and a dervish. I can’t think of a gondolier who could possibly be cooler than that.

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  1. Mary Ann DeVlieg
    Twitter: maietm.org

    As far as my hugely-forgotten memory of the history of Venice goes, haven’t we rebuffed, insulted, refused or avoided papal visits several times over the centuries? Could be one way to put a stop to the bickering….. 😉

    • Erla says:

      First of all, Venice does not have two women gondoliers. Giorgia Boscolo is the only woman who has passed all of the exams and been qualified as a substitute gondolier by the ENTE gondola. Alexandra Hai is a woman, true, and she rows a gondola, but that does not make her a gondolier. She is a woman who rows a gondola for money (privately, for a hotel, dressed in a silly costume), but she has failed the official gondola tests four times. She has no certificate from anyone.

      As for the sex/media appeal of two women rowing the pope (are you imagining them wearing wet T-shirts?), I would respectfully suggest that any media attention would be more appropriately directed to the passenger, not to the rowers. Putting girls to row the pope just because they’re females seems not only a blatantly sexist idea, but amazingly inappropriate, especially when you consider the Catholic Church’s position on women priests, not to mention contraception.

      • > As for the sex/media appeal of two women rowing the pope (are you imagining them wearing wet T-shirts?)

        I am sure lady gondoliers would conduct themselvesin a dignified, humile, yet elegant manner. That is why I posted the Disney princess analogy, as there should be no aspect that would fail to pass media censorship even in the USA. I would not view lady gondoliers are borderline harlots, but maybe the watery equivalent of Jedi.

        > media attention would be more appropriately directed to the passenger, not to the rowers

        Neither media, nor the general public is enthusiastic about Pope Benedict, who lacks the warm radiance of the late Pope John Paul II. The pope’s PR team is so poor in inventiveness, the famous movie director Franco Zeffirelli felt concerned about Mssr. Ratzinger’s media presence and he offered to guide the Vatican propaganda machine for free to try and enhance the pontiff’s public image!

        Since the current Pope is unable to get on close personal terms with the public, he may as well do something unusual to gain media attention for the Church. Why not ride in a gondola with lady rowers in the city of Santa Lucia, who is one of the few non-passive lady saints?

        As for Ms. Alexa, she has done terms in traghetto pairs and that was fine with everybody, until she wanted to become a single gondolier, then men started to accuse her of aiming to be a prima donna.

        • Erla says:

          I’m not sure how you conclude that “Ms. Alexa”‘s rowing the traghetto was “fine with everybody.” The gondoliers I know, including those at that traghetto, were extremely less than enthusiastic. And in my opinion, she was, in fact, a prima donna. If you read Venetian history, you quickly discover that Venetians have never been appreciative of egotism or self-aggrandizement. Au contraire.

    • Erla says:

      without taking the time to wade into my Venetian history swamp here, I hazard to reply that papal visits haven’t created any important problems. Popes tended to create problems at a distance, as they attempted to interfere in internal Venetian affairs. Everybody got along fine as long as they respected the old boundaries. And, one remembers, it was the pope (Pius V) who cobbled together the alliance that fought and won the Battle of Lepanto. So it’s probably fruitless to try to keep score.

  2. Andrew says:

    Talking of boats, did I not hear a year or two ago that the French were having a replica of the Bucintoro made to recompense for Napoleon’s destruction of the original? Do you know any news of that, Erla?

    • Hello Andrew! It was the major of Venice, who asked the french to contribute money towards the re-creation of the Bucintoro (because Napoleon had plundered that parade galley for the pure gold decorations).

      France did not reply, but the re-build started on purely italian funds about 1.5 years ago, only to stop soon after feud broke out among the various restoration professionals involved (with regards to the historical accuracy of blueprints, quality of materials used in the construction and some general conflict of personalities).

      I guess the rebuilt Bucintoro will debut in public celebrations circa 2301 – 2303 AD.

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I will bow to Mr. Feher’s reply; I have known founding members of the Bucintoro Committee for many years now and have never heard about the French overture. If it were made, it hasn’t been accepted. The people from Bergamo wanted to take the reins because they were providing much of the timber, but that obviously didn’t please the Committee much. I’d be skeptical of any French motives in any case — I don’t believe offering recompense for Napoleon’s depredations is very credible, otherwise they’d be recompensing half of Europe. Destroying the Bucintoro was one small part of the devastation he visited on Venice; his soldiers carried gold, silver, and jewels out of the Treasury of the basilica of San Marco for two solid weeks, night and day. Not to mention all the churches and monasteries he razed to the ground. Pretty hard to conceive of things like recompense when we’re up at that level

      • Yes, France is very reluctant to give anything back. Napoleon stole a huge oil painting from the St. Giorgio Maggiore church, so large his troops had to cut it in 3 parts to remove. Even when Venice threatened to go the EU court about the looting, the french would not give it back and eventually only a computer-printed full size copy was returned, with the original firmly remaining with France (in the Louvre, I think).

        As for the prolonged Bucintoro galley re-construction, I have to admit things are not any better elsewhere. Here, where I live, in Hungary, there is a largo lake called Balaton. Around 1994 some people had an idea to re-create the first ever large vessel which sailed that lake.

        The “Phoenix”, an oars and sail galley built in 1796, wasn’t much smaller than the Bucintaur, about 40 meters long, so the organization aiming to rebuild it from scrath got a lot of media attention and everybody spoke of the tourism potential.

        The keel was laid and then came financing problems, personality conflicts among organizers and the municipal officials, so the project died in just under 3 years. The keel has been rotting away under a tent-like cover, it looks like a dinosaur fossil. One can only hope the Bucintaur will fare better.

        • Erla says:

          Unfortunately, your last two paragraphs perfectly describe the situation with the “Bucintoro.”

  3. > Another person suggested Giorgia Boscolo, the first woman gondolier. That idea burnt up on reentry into reality.

    Even though that is a great idea. There are only two lady gondoliers in Venice, Giorgia and her senior, Alexandra Hai (who is co-incidentally an ethnic german person, just like the current Pope).

    The two of them as a crew would have no problem rowing Pope Benedict XVI across the Bacino San Marco, a truly five minute journey, as Erla incidated. There would be no selection crisis with only the two of them.

    Furthermore, a pair of undines rowing would have 25x more world media appeal compared to the usual macho gondoliers. Anybody who has seen Disney productions knows that princess fairy-tales sell fairly well. (Not to mention the british royal wedding media madness this week.) Venice just loves publicity.

  4. Yvonne says:

    Oh, my goodness! What a fun post to read on my re-entry to the Land Down Under. I sit in breathless anticipation, waiting to hear the final result. Go, Venice, go. Never change. 🙂

  5. Samuel Burbank says:

    Sam here. I frequently row with our club in the Disdotona and can vouch that we are ready and able. Just give us a short heads up to pull her out of Arsenale and give her a polish. I can speak for the club when I say your observations of our pride and joy are right on the money.