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
I hadn’t thought of writing about the Vogalonga (my 20th, undertaken on Sunday, May 15); after all, the pictures tell the story just as well, or even better — what? — than I could.
For the record, there were almost 2,000 boats registered and something around 8,000 rowers. What was unusual this year was the acute increase in single (or double, but mainly single) kayaks. Not judging, just saying. If this continues, before long we will be the eccentric guests at the Kayaklonga.
Our trusty crew awaits the 9:00 AM start aboard our equally trusty six-oar caorlina. Except that there are nine of us, which means the rowers were transporting an extra 400 pounds or so around the lagoon. They’re smiling here because they don’t realize that yet. From the front, our little floating United Nations is composed of Marianna Ciarlante (from Abruzzo), Axel and Sandra (Braunschweig), Pietro and Chiara (Rome), Camilla De Maulo and Marta Compagnini (Milan). Invisible me from the USA on the bow, and seated astern, the ineffable Lino (good grief! a genuine Venetian!!)
Looking at the boats assembling is always entertaining, and the “disdotona,” or 18-oar gondola, of the Querini rowing club is always spectacular.
There is the most wonderful energy and enthusiasm to the start. The cannon fires, all the bells start to ring, all the boats get going, and there is the amazing sound of water rushing past a world of boats.
So we were carrying our extra people, but this Sicilian tartana carried a piano and player. Reports were that he played during the whole event, but even though we were pretty close, I never heard a note. Was he playing “As Time Goes By”? “Nearer, My God, to Thee”?
Not long after the endless serpent of boats began to coast along the island of Sant’ Erasmo, there seems to have been a mass decision — lemmings with oars? — to strike out in a straight line across the shallows instead of staying in the channel that curves its way along the edge of the island. Perhaps you can make them out, on the line separating water from sky. We stayed in the channel, all by our peaceful, unhassled little selves. First of all, our boat would have probably been too heavy to make it across the shallows without ridiculous effort. Second of all, at the farthest point of Sant’Erasmo. the boats came back into the channel almost exactly in the position they held when they broke free. We certainly welcomed back a number of boats which had been beside us 35 minutes earlier.
The few pilings marking the channel at the northeast end of Sant’Erasmo are crowned by duck decoys. Evidently they mark a rest stop.
Still rowing, still happy, almost at Burano, the halfway point.
Friends of ours from Pavia.
A crew of hardy Dutch ladies who I thought, ignorantly, had escaped from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. But closer study makes it obvious that they have ingeniously modified their traditional headgear to be boatworthy.
“Burano” is Vogalongaspeak for “bananas and bottles of water or tea or other rehydrating agents thrown deftly from a barge into your boat.” I think slightly more than a ton of bananas sacrifice themselves to keep us rowing. Not all in our boat, of course. I’ll try to take a picture of the Great Banana Throw next year — I was too busy catching them to photograph them.
At Burano we finally got a glimpse of the amazing Mike O’Toole (astern) and Gary Serbeniuk of “Gondola Getaway” in Long Beach, California. Not that they rowed from California, though I have no doubt that they could have.
Down the Grand Canal., and the end is in sight. After five hours of rowing, that’s a phrase you could sing to “Take me hooooooome, country rooooooad…”.
We made it through the usually-clogjammed Canale di Cannaregio with no problem and now it’s on to the finish line.
The two best moments of the Vogalonga — if one had to choose — are the beginning and the end. Mike and Gary, conquering heroes, have made it back to the club, and they look like everybody feels when they’ve finally done it. If that sounds like an exaggeration, you may notice that the blue skies of the morning have turned grey and (you can’t see it) very windy and cold. They’re smiling also because they know that pasta with mussels awaits them. Well, maybe they didn’t actually KNOW that, but they knew there was wine somewhere very nearby. Because, you know, Italy.
Yes, Virginia, those are Vikings masquerading as Santa Claus. Hide the chickens and the cow.
Before we leave the subject and the scales and bones and gift-wrapping of Christmas behind, one last glimpse of holiday merriment. I wasn’t there, I’m sorry to say — I was sorry to say it the day it occurred, too, which was December 21.
The event: A “corteo,” or boat procession, in the Grand Canal, composed of anyone who wanted to row as long as he or she was dressed as Santa Claus (or “Babbo Natale,” as he’s known here).
The reason: First, because it seemed like a fun thing to do. Second, because it seemed like an amusing occasion for the Coordinamento delle Remiere (the association of rowing clubs) to give a prize and a big round of applause to the dwindling group of hardy souls who have rowed in all 40 Vogalongas. I say “dwindling” because in May there were 24 such persons, and on Santa Sunday there were 22.
The special bonus: Fog. Fog and just enough wind to make the air feel even sharper. But would this deter anyone willing to pull out the boat and pull on the red-and-white outfit? Obviously not.
Because I was busy elsewhere, Lino armed a modest sandolo and headed for the lineup joined (happily for Lino and I think also happily for the others) by Gabriele De Mattia, a former rowing student of his and ex-cadet of the Francesco Morosini Naval School, and his girlfriend, Francesca Rosso. She had never rowed before, but Lino soon took care of that.
So the three of them spent the morning rowing, and Lino was awarded a red pennant, such as those given to the winners of races here, with his name on it, and everybody was happy. Especially when the sun finally came out.
So a big shout-out to Francesca, who when she wasn’t rowing, was taking pictures. If she hadn’t been there, you all would just have had to imagine it. As would I. This is better.
Floating around while waiting for the official start (“official” being whenever somebody said “We’re ready, let’s go”), this batch of Saint Nicks had time to make sure their team of reindeer was comfortable at the bow. It appears that one of them is either trying to get in, or attempting to disembark.
No reindeer, caribou, or moose were harmed in the making of this boat. But I would like to see the paperwork on those beards.
How very “Be Prepared” — they brought their own tree, in case somebody needed a place to put their presents.
Here is Gabriele, who clearly had forgotten nothing despite a year into university life. It wasn’t snowing, but evidently there were interludes of unusually aggressive fog-flakes, or drops, or crystals, or something.
It’s the invasion of the Kris Kringle-Snatchers, heading upstream to the Rialto Market where something hot to drink must be waiting.
Not strictly Venetian, but any boat bearing a Saint Nicholas is welcome at the party. If this boat were to capsize, they’d all be bobbing around like Yuletide beach balls.
And speaking of the party, here was the entire regiment waiting for the prizes and refreshments. Did you know that in the Germanic tradition, it was Odin, king of the gods, who left presents in the boots that children left by the chimney? Not that I’m trying to rank Saint Nicholas, just trying to add to the holiday atmosphere.
“La Vigilia di Santa Marta” (The Eve of Santa Marta) by Canaletto. c. 1760. (Wikigallery.org). This view shows the Zattere, with the church of Santa Marta the last building in the distance. I realize that they did not have stadium lighting back then, but I’d have hoped to see more of the famous illuminated boats. I think he was paying too much attention to the geometry of the painting and not enough attention to what was really going on. Or maybe that’s just my way of saying “I wish I’d been there.”
July 29, as all the world knows, is the feast day of Santa Marta. Or in any case, now the world knows.
She is essentially forgotten here; her church has been deconsecrated, swallowed and partially digested by the Maritime Zone, and her celebration — once one of the greatest of the many great festivals here — is gone forever. Only a painting by Canaletto brings us the tiniest (and darkest) glimpse of what was once a very big night in Venice. Her name today is used mainly to refer to the adjacent neighborhood.
The reason I didn’t get this post finished by July 29 is because I got lost reading assorted accounts, some of them first-hand, about this uber-fest. It didn’t take me long to conclude that the fabled feast of the Redentore, which has remained a very big deal, was really nothing so remarkable compared to Santa Marta’s. The Redentore had fireworks, it’s true, but Marta had fresh sole.
Fish was an excuse for a colossal boating party? Why not? The Venetian civil and religious calendar was bursting with events of every type and voltage. A very short list would note the festivals of Santa Maria della Carita’, Palm Sunday, S. Stefano, “Fat Thursday,” May 1, or the Doge’s Visit to the Monastery of the Virgins, S. Isidoro, the taking of Constantinople (1204), the regaining of Candia (1204), S. John the Baptist “Beheaded,” Sunday after Ascension Day, the victory over Padua (1214), the defense of Scutari (1479), the victory of Lepanto (1571), S. Rocco, Corpus Domini, the victory of the Dardanelles (1656), and the conquest of the Morea (1687). These are just a few of the major events; the Venetians also commemorated defeats. There was something going on almost every day.
But there was always room for more, and although Santa Marta couldn’t claim to have sponsored any particular victory, discovery, or other noteworthy occurrence, her feast day conveniently fell in the period when the weather was suffocatingly hot, and the sole were in season. Plus, her church was located on a little lobe of land facing lots of water, and there was a beach. All this says “Put on your red dress, baby, ’cause we goin’ out tonight” to me.
Joan Blaue’s map of the late 1600’s shows the peninsula crowned by the church of Santa Marta, but I don’t see a beach. On the other hand, I do see rows of rafts formed of logs — “zattere” — in front of their eponymous stretch of waterfront. Nice.
On Ludovico Ughi’s 1729 map, “Pictorial Representation of the Illustrious City of Venice Dedicated to the Reign of the Most Serene Dominion of Venice,” we see something like beach surrounding Santa Marta’s headland. To each cartographer his own.
And this is how how that little lobe of land looks today. The big docks at Tronchetto were built in two stages in the 20th century, and Santa Marta (lower right corner of land) has become an afterthought. (www.panoramio.com)
The basic components were: Everybody in Venice, either on land or on the water, regardless of social station or disposable income; every boat in Venice — so many boats you could hardly see the water, festooned with illuminated balloons and carrying improvised little arbors formed by frondy branches; music, song and dance, and lots and lots of fresh sole.
A “genteel” sole, who was more the star of the evening than Santa Marta herself.
July is the season for sfogi zentili, or Solea vulgaris, and while the Venetians could bring their own vittles, plenty of them also bought the fish which had just been saute’d, either on the beach or on the street by enterprising entrepreneurs. If you were really in luck, there would be moonlight, too.
The best and most famous chronicler of this party was Giustina Renier Michiel, who was born in 1755 and belonged to several patrician Venetian families. She spent 20 years researching her six-volume work, Origine delle Feste Veneziane (1830), but the fact that she had personal memories of many of these events makes her books exceptional.
I started to translate what she wrote about the feast of Santa Marta, but she went on so long, and her style sounded so curious in English, that I became tired and discontented. So I’m going to give some bits and summarize the rest. Anyway, it’s clear that the event was so phenomenal that even people who saw it finally gave up trying to describe it adequately or coherently.
Here is her version of how the festa was born:
“In the old days many groups went out in certain boats to fish for sole, the best fish that one eats in July. (Lino concurs with date and description.)
“And in the evening they would go back to the beach by the church of Santa Marta and feast on the fish, enjoying the cool air that restored their depleted strength after the labor of fishing, as well as the heat of the season.
“Later on, as the population became richer, and softness set in, the work of fishing was left to the poor people, who had to do it in order to live, and what used to be a fatiguing labor changed into a singular entertainment.”
My version: It didn’t take long for everybody else in Venice to say “A cookout on the beach? We’re on our way.” Everybody started making Santa Marta’s Eve a great reason to head for her neighborhood and eat fish, garnished and enlivened by the classic saor sauce of sweet-sour onions. It was like a gigantic clambake, a barbecue, a luau, for thousands and thousands of people.
Obviously the beach was too small for everybody, so the boats made themselves at home on the Giudecca Canal, “whose waters could only be seen in flashes, and almost seemed to be strips of fire, agitated by the oars of so many boats that covered the water and which doubled the effect of the lights which were on the boats.”
The “Bucintoro dei Savoia,”also called the “Bucintoro del Po,” is the only surviving example of a Venetian peota of the 18th century. It was built in 1730 by a squero on Burano for Carlo Emmanuele III di Savoia and is now the property of the Civic Museums of Torino. Most noble families had one, and they were just the thing for big events such as the Regata Storica, processions honoring doges and kings, and alfresco picnics featuring a big fish fry.
The patricians came out on their fabulously ornate peote, and often carrying musicians who sang and played wind instruments. There were scores of the classic fishing boat called a tartana, draped with variously-colored balloons and loaded with laughing families and friends. There were artisans in their battellos, and hundreds of light little gondolas, and plenty of gondolas da fresco, and there were even the burchielle, the heavy cargo boats that carried sand and lumber. If it could float, it joined the vast confusion of boats being rowed languidly in every direction, or tied up along the Zattere where there was just as much happy turmoil ashore.
Or, if you were a fisherman, you might come out in an equally impressive (in its way) boat — a caorlina da seragia. Only a few still exist, and this very old craft has retained its original pitch waterproofing. You could fit several families, aristocratic or otherwise, into this monster.
Or if all you had was a little s’ciopon, you’d have bedecked it too, and come out with the food and family.
The Gazzetta Urbana of 1787: “Along this riva, called the Zattere, the cafe’s and bars are crammed to overflowing with people. There are tables set up outside their doors, and everything is so lit up that it seems to be daytime.
“The passage (of people) in all the streets leading to Santa Marta was dense and continuous, and the splendid gathering at the Caffe of San Basegio, at the head of the Zattere, formed a separate spectacle, in which our Adriatic beauties, wearing modern shimmering caps in the Greek style, ornamented with plumes, inflamed with their glances the hearts of the young men who, like butterflies, always flutter around the flare of a woman’s beauty.”
Also amid the throng were little ambulatory kitchens — a man with a basket of sole would put two stones on the ground, then lay two bunches of sticks crosswise on them, light a little charcoal under them, pour some oil in a pan, and stand there bawling for business. He kept a container of saor ready to put on the fish.
Renier Michiel: “The entire length of this district was full of a grand concourse of people, moving toward the piazza of Santa Marta which was the best vantage point to enjoy the spectacle. On the piazza there were more food vendors, some of them selling roast chicken. There is a racket of cups, plates, the yells of the vendors, the music from the boats on the water. Every house is transformed into a sort of tavern where people eat and drink, and there was perfect joy and harmony.”
“Perfect joy and harmony”? How can this be (apart from the fact that she was looking back on it, years later, when the festival was gone forever)?
I think it’s because Santa Marta was secretly taking care of people. She is the patroness of cooks, butlers, laundry-workers, servants, housewives, and waiters. Though I suppose you could just say “housewives” and leave it at that.
Because as Santa Marta, and 99 percent of women on earth, can attest, while some people at a party are laughing and scarfing the canapes and playing with the dog and singing comic songs and reveling in industrial-size helpings of joy and harmony, there’s at least one person somewhere in the background doing everything to make it seem as if there is absolutely nothing that needs to be done.
And I have no doubt that when the boats went home at dawn on July 29, there was somebody who had to put the boat away and swab the bilge and pick up every single fishbone, as well as deal with the dishes and the wine- and saor-stained clothes. Behind every great saint is somebody with a bucket and mop, I say.
You can barely make out the “Punta di Santa Marta” from the roof of the Molino Stucky Hilton.
The church of Santa Marta in 1934 was only slightly in the way of progress. Trains came down onto the waterfront to deliver or collect cargo to the ships in the maritime zone. No more beach.
There’s still a church in there somewhere behind the parking lot. Ex-church, that is, restored and now used as an exhibition space. Nice that it’s not falling to ruin, but any possible trace of character or history has been thoroughly expunged.
I realize that it wasn’t ever the most heavily decorated building in Venice, but they seem to have gone to the opposite extreme here. Seen from this angle, it could be a Potemkin church.
To review in closing: This entire area of water was completely covered with illuminated boats full of people singing and eating and laughing and being happy. And I think it’s safe to say that most of them were not tourists. That’s something else to recall occasionally — that Venice had an amazing life that had nothing to do with tourism. Seem strange? They’d think we’re even stranger.