Venice: La Serenissima – most serene – what a perfect description. With so many of its buildings, when viewed from a distance, appearing to rise from the water, the city of Venice has indeed a dreamlike serenity: a feeling that it is floating. And in a way Venice is floating. It has, after all, been created from a lagoon.
A city that owes its existence to the sea
It started life, possibly in Roman times. But certainly in the first centuries AD settlements were appearing on the lagoon’s 118 islands. Fishermen and salt producers were building, not only their houses, but also the land on which to build them. They were accruing wealth from the production of salt and needed to expand; their only solution was to safeguard the existing low lying land which constantly flooded, and also to create land from the water.
By means of a series of wooden piles driven into the swamps they created palisades, which they in-filled with whatever material they could find, thereby strengthening, and also making, the land. Simple bridges were erected linking the islands but chiefly the inhabitants used the waterways to move around and trade with each other.
By the Middle Ages bricks were used for paving; to be followed a few centuries later by the stones we see today. The wooden palisades were reinforced with brick and stone walls. The planks of wood serving as bridges were raised by steps so that boats could sail unhindered, eventually to be replaced by bridges of brick and stone. Houses and churches were built, and by the 15th century Venice had become a city; a city owing its very existence to the sea.
A major maritime power
By that date Venice already had an identity as a major maritime power. Even in 1204 it had, with the aid of the Crusaders, captured Constantinople (Istanbul) and brought back untold quantities of valuables from the Byzantine. Its maritime empire extended to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and some of the sea’s islands.
Whereas the inhabitants of other cities travelled from place to place by road, the Venetians had no alternative but to take to the water. The waterways carried the workmen and their tools, whilst the wealthy travelled in gondolas to the main entrances of their palazzi – which opened onto the canals, rather than the narrow alleys.
And so it is today, workmen carry their tools and building materials around in boats, police and fire services operate from the water, gondolas carry tourists on tours along the canals. Venice could not function without its canals – they are its arteries, its very life’s blood.
Until the fall of the Venetian Empire in 1797 Venice was noted for its ship building prowess. Skilled craftsmen worked in the vast ship building yard, the Arsenale. It is said that in its heyday some 16,000 people worked there helping to produce craft of all sizes, and craft capable of sailing great distances too.
Consequently it is not surprising that the Venetians, even very early in their history, celebrated the sea that had brought their city such wealth.
It is thought that regattas had been held in Venice long before, but the first recorded event actually took place mid-13th century as part of the Festa delle Mariecelebrations. The original regattas usually involved races either between gondoliers and boatmen or to commemorate civic and religious events.
In 1841, a boat race along the Grand Canal was organized to encourage gondoliers to maintain the ‘honour of their famed skills’. This became an annual event, until in 1866 it was decided that the regatta should not only consist of races but also celebrate the history of the Venetian Republic. And in 1899 it was given the name by which we know it today – the Regata Storica.
Regata Storica 2013
The Regata Storica is a magnificent event lasting some three hours on the first Sunday afternoon in September. People flock into the city and crowd onto bridges or balconies to get a glimpse of the festivities, or, as we did, pay €50 for a waterside seat on one of the specially built stands.
The event starts with a procession of dozens of gilded and coloured replicas of 16th century vessels carrying the Doge and his wife and high-ranking officials along the Grand Canal, all clad in the appropriate costumes of the day.
After the procession comes the main reason for the event: the races.
Racing down the Grand Canal
It was at this point that I thought I would lose interest in the proceedings. But no, the races were far too exciting.
The crews – men, women and youngsters, some as young as 10 years old, competed in their various categories and raced their pupparini, mascarete, caorline or gondolini along the canals to be the first over the finishing lines in order to win the coveted red pennant. It was an exceptionally hot day and the distances they rowed were considerable. Serious stamina was needed by the audience – to say nothing of the rowers, who row Veneto-style, i.e. standing facing forward!
The last and fastest of races was the gondolino – a vessel specially designed for the Regata Storica in 1829. It was designed to make the race faster, more competitive and more exciting. Competitive and exciting it certainly was. The noise was deafening as the supporters and visitors alike cheered on their favourite crews.
And after the racing had finished it seemed as if every boat in Venice slipped its moorings and ventured onto the Grand Canal for a fantastic party, turning the iconic waterway into a jostling, glorious scene, rather like a modern-day Canaletto painting.
Some shopping too
The aim of our weekend really had been to see the Regata, but needless to say we also managed to include a considerable amount of shopping and eating. We also visited the fascinating Friari (church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari) in the S Polo district, near where we were staying, and the remarkable Scuola Grande di San Rocco where all the works of art were carried out by either Tintoretto or his students – stunning.
And to round off the weekend we spent an evening at La Feniche – the exquisite gem of an opera house which, like its name sake, the phoenix, has risen from flames and ashes – but in the case of the opera house twice in its life time.
Thank goodness La Feniche has once again been rebuilt and risen from the flames; and as for La Serenissima – she still rises from the waters of the lagoon, enchanting visitors as she has done for centuries.