To recapitulate: These were the gondolinos on August 19. (Photo taken from remieracasteo.blogspot.it.)
The restored boats were a thesaurus of synonyms for “gleam.” If you can discern where the cut was made and repaired, you’re not human. No offense.
I may have mentioned that I was RUDELY interrupted on Sept. 2 by my computer, which cut my post into chunks and then wouldn’t give them back (hence only that brief mention of the Return of the Gondolinos).
Although a few days have passed, I won’t be happy until I’ve finished the job. So cast your minds back to last Thursday, when part of the “world of the oar,” as it’s called here, gathered for the annual ceremony of the blessing of the gondolinos and, unusual at this late date, the drawing of lots for the assigning of the boats to the racers. Who gets what color boat is random, and the drawing usually follows shortly after the last elimination has whittled the list of rowers down to nine competing teams plus one reserve team, to be called in at whatever moment before the starting gun it’s clear that one team is not going to be racing. It happens — not often, but I’ve seen the reserve boat actually win one time. Considering that being the reserve means that you barely squeaked into the lineup against faster men (or women) than you, this outcome makes it clear that all sorts of factors, apart from sheer speed at the trials, come into play in the race itself.
This may well be true in many other athletic competitions, but I’m sticking to what I know.
There is no significance to the colors; the boats are painted in order to make it easy to distinguish and identify them from medium to far distance. This ensures that the onlooker (say, a judge….) is identifying the appropriate boat as it crashes into its closest neighbor, or as it crosses the finish line. (Even in good weather, red and orange are almost impossible to tell apart.) Furthermore, in the non-official races in which people sometimes race on their club boats, there is almost no way to identify the boats because they’re all pretty much the same mash-up of colors. The relatives of the racers know who’s who, but the judges almost certainly don’t. To avoid any possible problems, the judges following the race in motorboats call out instructions and warnings by color, not by racer’s name.
As an extra security measure, which is very useful when there is rain and/or fog, numbers have been painted on the bow of each boat, as follows:1 white, 2 yellow, 3 purple (lavender, violet, whatever), 4 light blue, 5 red, 6 green, 7 orange, 8 pink, 9 brown, reserve: red and green.
The racers get a sash and a neckerchief to match the color of their boat; it used to be considered helpful. Now it’s just part of the tradition. The neckerchief was supposed to deal with the sweat (this was before terrycloth headbands), and the sash was intended to help truss up what sometimes, in the old days, were men who either did, or would soon, need one.
I had never seen an entire fleet of new Venetian boats, nor would I ever have thought I’d see one, considering how much the things cost. (The total bill came to 80,000 euros, which means a paltry 8,000 euros each, but these were repairs. A knowledgeable source told me a new gondolino could cost 30,000 euros.) It was thrilling, from their perfect shine to their perfume of still-recent paint. Eau de Regata Storica, with subtle top notes of epoxy.
As the crowd gathered, the Coro Serenissima provided the festive soundtrack with many of the classic Venetian songs. A good number of these ditties involve gondolas, the lagoon, and romance; so far no song has come out that features electric saws and battered boats. I’d like to hear one about the maestri d’ascia (“masters of the adze”) who rebuilt the gondolini. Something along the lines of “The Ballad of John Henry” could work really well.
(L to R): Roberto dei Rossi, Dino Tagliapietra, and Gianfranco Vianello, nicknamed “Crea” (KRAY-uh). Not only does Crea carry the title of “Re del Remo” (“king of the oar”) for having won the Regata Storica five times consecutively, he also built the boats which he now had to repair. Sad as he was to see them butchered, he said he was really happy to discover how well they’d held up over 35 years. And if “king of the oar” sounds silly, it’s as hard as winning the Triple Crown in horse racing. He won his title on the gondolino in 1981, and nobody has done it since.
The ceremony gets underway with photo-worthy hugs by the mayor, Luigi Brugnaro, wearing his official sash. To their right, the white-haired man in the black jacket is Mario Eremita, the artist who designed and painted the “palio,” or banner, depicting the Regata Storica. This is new this year and is loaded with symbolism.
As the artist explained to me, the lion of San Marco at the top depicts an African lion, because St. Mark was buried in Alexandria, Egypt. Venice is always represented as a woman, of course, here wrapped in a cloak which repeat the colors of the gonfalone, or banner, of San Marco. In her mid-section (womb, if you like), is the Piazza San Marco, with basilica and belltower, from which are emerging the boats of the Regata Storica and spreading across the water of the Bacino of San Marco. Her right hand holds an olive branch, the emblem of peace, and in her left she holds an ouroboros, the ancient representation of a snake devouring its tail which symbolizes rebirth and renewal; in this case, the repetition of tradition.
While everyone is milling around taking pictures, the racers are examining the boats. Here, Igor and Rudi Vignotto are analyzing where the boat was cut. If they ever found a trace, I’d be impressed.
Speechifying ensues. Here, Giovanni Giusto, president of the Coordinating Committee of the Rowing Clubs and city councilor for rowing and traditions, shares his thoughts. The gonfalone of San Marco adds the right touch, even if the rest of the ribbons can’t be seen.
Due to the delay in having the boats themselves, the gondolinos weren’t assigned to the racers after the last elimination was held. So the usual drawing of lots had to wait for today, with just three days before the event. Drawing your boat at random limits the possibility of skulduggery, or the appearance thereof, the same reason why each team’s position at the starting line is also drawn by lot. It’s not unheard-of for racers to consider a color as bringing victory or doom, so let’s just make everybody’s chances equal. As is customary, here the “poppieri,” or men rowing on the “poppa,” or stern, come to draw a small numbered ball — number corresponding to color — from the green bag held by Crea. He is fulfilling this duty because he is now also the president of the race judges.
All the racers posing with their sashes which match the color of their boat.
The men begin pulling out their forcolas (oarlocks) and oars, ready for the blessing and, immediately thereafter, the launching of the boats.
The stern forcola, made of the traditional walnut.
Finally we reach the moment of the blessing. The priest, pretty much hidden by the boats and the racers, has said his prayer and is now shaking holy water from his aspergillum across some of the gondolinos. He was rather perfunctory, by which I mean he did not sprinkle all the boats. I don’t know if that made a difference to the race, but it prevented me from getting a better picture.
A closer look.
So let’s get these boats in the water already. The white gondolino has just been launched and now it’s the yellow boat’s turn to be rolled out, on a small trolley, to the edge of the fondamenta where some pieces of red carpet have been placed to ease the slide.
The boat was tilted off the small trolley and slid along the edge of the fondamenta. At the halfway point, the poppiere — in this case, Luca Ballarin — climbed aboard and, as it were, took possession of his chariot. It’s extremely unusual to have a person aboard when putting a boat in the water this way; it’s evident that you’re risking damaging the boat even if the water is fairly cooperative. I can’t explain why they decided to do it this way, but considering that we have three master boatbuilders on hand, I’m guessing they know what they’re doing.
Ignore the change in boat color — the next phase was to lift the bow and push the boat free of the fondamenta, dropping it in the water. This required some strength and skill (I could just imagine the ferro of the bow striking the stone edge and I’m sure everyone else could imagine it too).
Flinging the boat into the water made a very satisfying sploosh. Here, Rudi Vignotto has been flung. The man with the red trousers is not involved in these maneuvers in any way, but is taking a photo (I think) from a long pole.
No need for me to expound upon the beauty of this moment. But the gondolino is a startling contrast to the chaos of taxis, vaporettos and private motor boats that continues to swarm past. Yes, they were going slowly, due in part to a sentinel police boat. But there are far, far, far too many. And they and their passengers are living in a parallel universe which never touches ours.
But in the interest of fairness, I should mention that most rowers — I’m going to say all rowers — have motorboats, some of them pretty hefty. The boat, I mean. It makes sense because it’s useful for towing your boat, or for getting quickly and efficiently to wherever you have to train, which could be fairly far away. But of course everybody thinks their motorboat makes sense.
Luca Ballarin hanging out with Franco Dei Rossi “Strigheta,” one of the greatest racers but who this year has “hung his oar up on the nail,” as they say of retired people. He’s still working as a gondolier, but no more racing. You might not believe it, but it takes great strength of character to stop trying when your house is full of victory pennants but you’re past 60 and not up to your old speed. At least one famous racer kept at it for years after he should have quit, on ANY boat and ANY race, even if he finished last. It was like one of those endless farewell tours by superannuated sopranos. Depressing. I’m sorry not to see “Strigheta” racing anymore, but I admire his dignity.
Kudos gathered, gondolinos gone, the party’s over. All that’s left is Roberto dei Rossi and lots of spare sawhorses and shadows. As for the race, I’ll save you any suspense: The first four to finish (which is what counts, because they get a pennant) were: Blue, White, Orange, Brown. If you want more particulars, even if they’re in Italian, go to: http://www.veneziatoday.it/cronaca/regata-storica-venezia-2016-classifica-risultati.html