by Roderick Conway Morris

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Regata di Pellestrina, which takes places on the first Sunday of August every year

'In Barca'

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 7 June 1996


The clinging mists of winter and mournful blasts of foghorns are all but a distant memory, the last spring storms and squalls of icy rain have passed, and now day after day the city and its neighboring islands are bathed in golden summery light. In short, the season has arrived when, if you're trying to track down one of your Venetian friends at the weekend (and sometimes on a weekday, too) and you're lucky enough to find anyone at home at all, you'll be told, as like or not, that the person you are searching for is 'in barca'.

'In barca', literally 'in a boat', is a spectacularly ill-defined location, which indicates that the person is somewhere, heaven knows quite where, on the surface of Venice's over 200 square miles of lagoon. Being 'in barca' is indeed the ancestral birthright, the ideal state of being of this amphibious Mediterranean race - a chance, according to mood, to get away from it all and retreat into calm, reflective solitude, to go fishing, to get seriously fit, to go AWOL with a couple of friends, or to explore, perhaps by moonlight, a romantic possibility...

The 'barca' in question might be an oar-driven 'sandolo' (the Ur-lagoon craft), a lateen-rigged, dinghy-like 'topo', a fiberglass tub with an antique, chugging inboard engine, a snazzy speedboat with an absurdly enormous outboard motor, driven at an angle of 45 degrees by what looks like a double-headed boy-girl troll, and powered by an explosive mix of recklessness, testosterone and juvenile narcissism, or yet again, a serene, solid working barge, temporarily fitted out for an all-day, family-and-friends excursion with a fifteen-foot long table, chairs, crockery, cutlery, glasses, serving dishes, massive cooking pots and casks of wine, for a waterborne banquet 'al fresco'.

The one vessel you are highly unlikely to encounter on the open water - except in its streamlined, brightly-colored racing version - is the classic, sleekly funereal gondola, an urban conveyance par excellence, which looks almost as out of place in the wilds of the lagoon as a London black taxi cab in a Kentish country lane.

For all the attractions of modern power boats, thousands of Venetians of every age and class still keep alive the hallowed art of 'la voga alla Veneta', Venetian-style rowing, which is done in a variety of craft, but always standing and facing the prow of the boat. (The technique is a tricky one, especially when rowing solo, and takes some time to master.) There are many privately-owned Venetian-style rowing boats, but there are also about fifty clubs scattered around the city and lagoon, which offer their members the use of a range of boats for a subscription fee of only about $10 a month. Venice gave the world the word 'regatta' - and there are over 120 such races between clubs every year. In addition, the Comune (Municipality) organizes an annual program of nine big public regattas between May and September.

These hotly-contested, picturesque sporting occasions, over half of which take place at islands around the lagoon, are a first-class way of seeing the Venetians at play. Given that these meets are almost exclusively attended by local people, they also offer visitors a chance to see aspects of traditional life on the lagoon otherwise difficult to witness . The regattas include races for men, young men and women. The winners are presented with a 'bandiera' (pennant): red for those that come in first, white for second, green for third and blue for fourth. All the competitors also receive cash prizes, those placed first taking home nearly one and half million lire each. Most male champions are professional watermen, such as gondoliers, fishermen, bargemen and boatbuilders, and many of the most successful women rowers, too, are the daughters of families that make their living on the water.

Venice's regattas go back at least to the 13th century. Some were attached to church festivals, held to celebrate military victories, or to entertain visiting foreign big-wigs. Two of today's major regattas - the 'Sensa' (Ascension Day) and 'Redentore' (Festival of the Savior, in July, celebrating the city's delivery from the plague in 1577) - are still joined to important dates on the Venetian religious calendar.

Champion rowers can have successful careers spanning thirty years or more - with perfection of rowing style and knowledge of the lagoon's complex and shifting currents and tides not infrequently as decisive as sheer muscle. (Indeed, rowing partnerships sometimes consist of an experienced older man and a younger rower to provide maximum power.) And, as in the past, winners become popular heroes in their neighborhoods, and the all-time greats command recognition and respect wherever they go.

Since 1844 the boats used in regattas - whether they be the 'mascareta' or 'pupparin' (lightweight types of 'sandolo'), gondola, or 'caorlina' (a barge for six oarsmen) - have been painted in different primary colors (canary yellow, bright red, green, and so on), to help the spectators (and judges) follow the progress of the race.

Every regatta has its distinctive setting and flavor. The Murano Regata on the first Sunday of July, for example, is the only one for solo rowers, with the men using gondolas for men, and the women and young men, pupparini. This is a punishing competition at the best of times, but four years ago, to add to the excitement, a sudden storm blew up during the men's race. The vision of the startlingly-colored gondolas far out on the lagoon battling the wind and waves against a sky that on one side was filled with sunlight and on the other a pitchblack wall, was like something out of Hieronymous Bosch, and the finish on Murano's main canal, by now a heaving mass of tempest-tossed water, a terrific drama to the last.

The Regata Storica (Historical Regatta), which was established in 1899, to preserve the tradition of the many regattas rowed along the length of the Grand Canal during the centuries of the Venetian Republic, is held on the first Sunday of September. It is the only one attended by large numbers of 'foresti' (or 'outsiders' as the Venetians call non-Venetians of any kind, whether Italian or foreign). However, despite the introductory procession of ceremonial boats, it is by no means a touristic event as far as the rowers and fans are concerned.

The men's race is rowed in the 'gondolino', a special light, fast gondola introduced in 1825. Five consecutive wins in the Regata Storica earns the rower the coveted title of 'Re del Remo' (King of the Oar). Many Venetians watch from their boats moored along the banks of the Grand Canal, but it is also possible to buy seats on floating grandstands set up by the Comune, or at the gondoliers' 'tragheto' (ferry) stations. (You should try to get a seat as close to the finishing line at Ca' Foscari as possible.)

Passions can run high and there is almost always a tremendous rumpus at the end of the 'caorlina' race (since overtaking in these barges in the confines of the Canal is extremely difficult), as enraged, sweating, herculean oarsmen bandy accusations, threats and choice insults - all, fortunately perhaps, in well-nigh impenetrable Venetian dialect - and the bemused Italian and foreign dignitaries, invited along to hand out the prizes, look on.

But perhaps the most enjoyable regattas for those in search of the proverbial good day out are the ones at Pellestrina (on the the first Sunday of August, when there is a local festa celebrating an apparition of the Virgin on the island) and Burano (in mid September). These islands are both populous and lively fishing and boatbuilding communities. Their lagoonscapes are remote and lovely, and the day of each regatta an extended festival of eating, drinking and socializing, culminating in evening races where crowd participation is boisterous and informed.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024