Archive for Venetian Events


Santa Marta: party on!

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1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

“La Vigilia di Santa Marta” (The Eve of Santa Marta) by Canaletto. c. 1760. ( 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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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. (

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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.”

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

You can barely make out the “Punta di Santa Marta” from the roof of the Molino Stucky Hilton.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.

1x1.trans Santa Marta: party on!

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.



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Just being rosy

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1x1.trans Just being rosy

Find the long-stemmed rose in this picture — I mean, piazza. (Foto: The Organizing Committee).

1x1.trans Just being rosy

And this is how it was intended to look when it was full of appropriately colored participants. (Foto: The Organizing Committee.)

April 25, as all the world knows, is a double holiday here.  Not only is the day a national holiday (National Liberation Day), but it is the feast day of Marco, one of the four evangelists and the city’s (once republic’s) patron saint.

There are several ways to observe either or both of these memorable events, but this year another element was added: The Living Rose, or The Human Rose, or The Rose by Any Other Name, or however one wants to put it.

Alberto Toso Fei, a Venetian writer, and Elena Tagliapietra, an artist, came up with a new way to celebrate the traditional “bocolo,” or long-stemmed red rose, which is the customary Venetian homage from a gentleman to his ladylove, or wife, or girlfriend (perhaps both?), sister, aunt, or other deserving feminine personage in his life or family.  But why give a rose when you can be one?

Some time earlier, the Gazzettino offered its readers the possibility of applying to participate as one of some 1,000 people who would form the design of the bocolo in the Piazza San Marco on April 25.  This would be a sort of flash mob/performance art creation, to last only long enough to be photographed and filmed from the campanile of San Marco.

So we applied.  And we were accepted, notified via e-mail, and asked to appear between 1:30 and 2:00 dressed in as much red garb as we could muster.  We would embody part of Petal #12.

The day was hot and sunny, but there was a breeze, and although normally I wouldn’t have gone near the Piazza San Marco on a national holiday, the chaos was tolerable and the other rose-components all contributed to a surprisingly sprightly atmosphere.

Almost the best part of the entire event, which went off without so much as a drooping leaf, was to glimpse the by-now famous Tiziana Agostini, she of the mangled-nizioleti fame.  She came to join in, dressed in red, which I think is somewhere beyond amazing, considering that the event had the additional purpose of raising funds to pay for the repair of the nizioleti in the area of the piazza.  A lesser person might have avoided the piazza, saying “Nizioleti?  What nizioleti?”  But she was there, and I give her a fistful of gold stars.

I read that there were a number of other meanings, purposes, significances, and so on which had been layered onto the event.  One headline referred to it as a “cry to the world from Venice,” to show that Venice is still a living city and not just a touristic snakepit.  I merely pass that along.

Down at Piazza-level, though, the only thing that seemed to matter was enjoying a few minutes of doing something unusual that made you smile.  Not that I’m against Deep Meaning, but for me, the smiling was reason enough to do it.  Here’s the YouTube link:

Dimensions: The Gazzettino says that the bloom covered some 850 square meters (9,149 square feet), and the stem and leaves some 150 meters (1,614 square feet).  I cannot understand, sitting here, how that might be.  It sounds like the size of an average Adirondack Great Camp, the kind that were built by the robber barons of the late 19th-century. But let that go.  It didn’t last long enough for its size to really matter.

It was fun.  Indubitably there are things that are more important, but God knows there’s a dangerous shortage of frivolity around here, so I’d be happy to leave it at that.

If we saved Venice in the meantime, that’s nice too.

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Section 12 looked like this, in the early stages of reporting for duty. It was the upper outer right-hand petal, as you look down at the bocolo from the campanile.

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Each section was easily identified by the number on official backs (and on balloons). Here participants checked in with the individual managing the list of names, signed a release form, and moved on to the face-painting stage.

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The face-painter also painted on arms and foreheads, but many went with the simple stencil-on-cheek.

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Lino, post-painting. He is still holding the container of gummy watercolor-based red ink.  Yes, that’s a toothpick in his mouth.  It wouldn’t be him without his toothpick.

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Your correspondent. I could have had roses all over me, but I like the subtle approach.

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Red people were everywhere, but that’s only because I didn’t think to roam all the way down to the green section.

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Many ladies were already armed with their bocolo.

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The definition of “red” ran a generous gamut.

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One dauntless lad brought out his red terrycloth bathrobe.

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This gentleman wasn’t part of the event — he had bigger things on his mind.  The two bocolos (bocoli?) in his hand were clearly destined for important ladies, who seemed to be running slightly late. I missed my chance to see them arrive. He was extremely patient, so I hope all went as planned.

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The Piazza is usually besieged with illegal rose-sellers, but on April 25 the only visible vendors were for the Red Cross.

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Lino’s son, Marco, is the only gondolier I noticed who installed a bocolo in the place of honor on his gondola.

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Signs of approaching Carnival

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Carnival has become one of my least favorite things about Venice, because each year its negative aspects increasingly outweigh the positive.

I am referring to the Mega-Commercial-Highly-Promoted Carnival whose vortex is the Piazza San Marco. But Carnival in its small, neighborhood version continues to charm me, mainly because it almost exclusively involves children (the smaller, the better) and their doting relatives.  Random frolicking.  Dressing up for no reason (by which I mean, not the reason of being photographed to, for, by, or with anyone, particularly tourists). Throwing fistfuls of confetti anywhere.

I don’t need to look at the calendar to know that Carnival has, as of today, officially begun. For the past few days the signs have been unmistakable.

Here are a few:

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This pastry shop/cafe produces wonderful Carnival sweets (galani and frittelle, in case you’re wondering), even though they are overpriced. But I do like the way the words are composed, as if someone was more accustomed to composing anonymous ransom notes using cutout newspaper letters.

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There have been indiscriminate explosions of confetti, increasing in quantity and range, for a few days now. The perpetrators are invisible.

1x1.trans Signs of approaching Carnival

Climbing the stairs to visit a friend two days ago, I discovered this mysterious harbinger of Carnival: The princess costume. Just add princess and throw confetti.



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A truly Historic Regata

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1x1.trans A truly Historic Regata

This is the “Serenissima,” the crowning glory of the boat procession preceding the races — the image of the Regata Storica in everyone’s mind, not to mention on a million postcards.

I have no doubt that calendars around the world were marked REGATA STORICA (“historic regatta”) two days ago.  It’s been held on the first Sunday in September for the past 500 years or so (since 1489, to be exact).  Calendars by now ought to be able to mark themselves.

There were several aspects of this year’s edition which made it notable — even “historic,” if you will, though I suppose everything that happens qualifies as historic in one way or another merely by the fact of its having occurred.

Historic Point 1: Our rowing club had three boats in the races, and each came home with a pennant: first, second, and third place.  More on that below.

Historic Point 2, with gold stars applied by me: There were no fights.  No hurled epithets, no banshee curses howled at judges or fellow racers, no demerits for breaking any rules.  I know.  I must have been hallucinating.  But it’s still true.

Let me elaborate on these points:

Our club had two pupparinos in the young men’s race; the pair on the orange boat won the race, coming home with the red pennant.  The pair on the brown boat finished second, earning a white pennant.  We also had the red gondolino, rowed by Roberto Busetto and his brother Renato, who finished third (green pennant).  This is not only wonderful, but exceptional, considering that Roberto hasn’t  finished in the top four in the Grand Canal  for the past eight years.

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A glimpse backstage: The three boats at our club on Sunday morning.

1x1.trans A truly Historic Regata

The final touch is buffing the wax that you applied yesterday. Unfortunately, the wax isn’t necessarily the determining factor of your speed, as the boys on this boat discovered.

As for the harmony between the two giga-competitors of the past two eternal decades — Giampaolo d’Este and Ivo Redolfi Tezzat, and the Vignotto cousins (the “Vignottini”) — I don’t know what to attribute it to.  But one does recall that after d’Este unburdened himself at the Regata of Murano of every opinion he ever had about the judges, he was penalized by having to sit out the next race.  That might have had a slight sobering effect, not that I think that race was so important to him.

Or maybe the lack of conflict is an early sign of the approaching Millennium.

Or maybe they’re just getting tired.

Or maybe it was the unexpected exchange of views at the eliminations a few weeks ago.  When the qualified nine teams were brought together to draw the color of their boats, d’Este announced, “I’d like to make a proposal.  We eliminate the judges.”

To which one judge replied, “I’d like to make a counter-proposal.  We eliminate you (meaning him and his partner), and the Vignottos.  Because the only time there are ever any problems, fights, and general grief, it’s when you all are in the race.”

No more proposals were entertained and the meeting was adjourned.

But there had to be some sort of flaw in the ointment, as a friend of mine used to say.  Everyone wasn’t humming like happy little tuning forks, as we discovered when the blood blister of rage broke in the mind of Davide Peditto, one of the boys on the brown pupparino.  I say “boy,” but he’s 18 years old; not exactly a child.

He was so angry at not winning — horrors!  finishing second!!  has the world gone mad?? — that he wrapped himself in a cloak of fury so thick and black that no communication could reach him, and very little could come out.  This is evidently an aspect of his personality already known to people who are closer to him than I am.

His only release was to take his white pennant and throw it onto the dock at our club and leave it there.  “Carta da culo,” he snarled bitterly; toilet paper (literally, ass-paper).

This is not only an insult to Venice, to every racer who has preceded him, to every racer who competed with him (12 of whom would have loved to have had that very pennant, ten of whom would have loved to have had ANY pennant), but a real insult to his long-suffering partner, onto whose pleasure in this accomplishment he had just poured gasoline, so to speak, and then thrown a match.

One would like to help this splenetic young man re-think his ideas about winning and losing — or if not his ideas, at least his behavior.  I’d suggest sending him the bits of the newspaper reporting the comments which were made by another racer who came in second on Sunday: Giampaolo d’Este, who had spent virtually the entire race head-t0-head with the Vignottos.  When they crossed the finish line 95/100ths of a second ahead of him, he probably wasn’t any happier with the outcome than the young brat at our club — especially because he has enough red pennants by now to entitle him to think he might deserve another one.

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They were like this for almost the entire race.  The screaming of the crowd was deafening.

But he did not compare his white pennant to anything else. Here’s what he said:

“Well, that’s the way it went.  Either we or the Vignottos could have won, and they won.  No recriminations — it was a beautiful race and it’s always beautiful to be its protagonists.”

He might have meant it, which would be excellent.  But he said it anyway, and that’s about 95/100ths even more excellent.  But if it’s too hard, in the glaring heat of the moment, for a youngster to say something that mature, I’d suggest that the next-best option would be silence.

And I don’t mean that thick black silence, either. I mean the silence in which the image, the shape, and the hope for next year’s race would already be forming in his mind, spirit, and gizzard.  As far as I can tell, that’s the only way that true athletes, or humans of any stripe, manage to get those bitter pills down and keep going.

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The indefatigable Dino Righetto on the stern of our six-oar balotina. The “bissone,” or fancy boats, are coming up behind us to start the procession.

1x1.trans A truly Historic Regata

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These are racing gondolas belonging to the city, which are decorated to evoke the boats and passengers of the original regata in 1489.

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The procession is moving slowly upstream, with the current, toward the “volta de Canal,” or “turn of the canal,” where the finish line has always been for races here.

1x1.trans A truly Historic Regata

On the left is the colossal platform from which the RAI 2 national television company is ready to broadcast live. The “Machina,” or reviewing stand, is just behind it on the left.  Not only does it accommodate notables of every shape and sort, it is where the prizes will be awarded.

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I know nothing about this very curious boat but it certainly was worth a look. The model of the Rialto Bridge isn’t the only odd feature; the stern has been re-made in a strange way; the prow has been altered in an even stranger way, and the forcola isn’t the typical design for use on a gondola; it’s been dragooned from either a pupparino or gondolino.  And although there used to be a tradition of decorating some of the boats with fruits and vegetables, this is the only one I noticed this year. If this assemblage is intended as a tribute to the late Joachim Vogel, it’s unusual to use eggplants and chili peppers along with the wildflowers from the barene. But hey.

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After the boat procession, we get down to the party. We park the boat and pull out the food and drink, and wait for the races to start. Beer foam presents no problem.

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The winning mascareta in the women’a competition; Giorgia Ragazzi (bow) and Luisella Schiavon leave the rest in the dust, so to speak (actually the next boat is about five boat-lengths behind them), and win their fifth consecutive Storica. They are only the second pair of women ever to attain thereby the status of “regina del remo.”

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And here come the Vignottos and d’Este-Tezzat, speeding down the home stretch. Here’s something peculiar: In both the boys’ and men’s races, the first two boats were orange and brown, but the order of finish was inverted. I wonder what it all means.


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And let me not slight Renato and Roberto Busetto, flying toward a fabulous third place — note the absence of other boats nearby. They were definitely in the groove.  However, sharp-eyed readers will notice that there is a gentle swell of waves beneath their boat, left by the passing jury boat.  The wave issue is something that seems impossible to resolve.  Not because nobody knows how, but because of some other reason I can’t come up with.

1x1.trans A truly Historic Regata

As soon as the gondolinos cross the finish line, all the spectators’ boats try to leave at once.  It’s about as convenient as everybody trying to get out of a movie theatre within five minutes after the end of the film. With the added element of lots of choking motor exhaust fumes. Yes, hundreds of rowing fans go home in boats powered by engines.  But then again, so do fans of horse-racing.  So I’m not sure what my point is.  All I can say is that there’s a big clump of traffic for a while.


1x1.trans A truly Historic Regata
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