In Italy this week? Don't Miss Venice's Regata Storica!

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Our local Venetian guide, Ermanno returns today to tell us about another not-to-be-missed event taking place in Venice on September 1st, a week from today: the fabled Regata Storica. Will you be in Venice next weekend? Read on to learn about this centuries-old boat race.

The Regata Storica is the main event in the annual "Voga alla Veneta rowing calendar. This unique sport has been practised in the Venetian lagoon for thousands of years and today it is particularly well-known for the spectacular historical water pageant that precedes the race. Scores of typically 16th century-style boats with gondoliers in period costume carry the Doge, the Doge's wife and all the highest ranking Venetian officials up the Grand Canal in a brightly coloured parade. It is an unforgettable sight and a true reconstruction of the glorious past of one of most the powerful and influential Maritime Republics in the Mediterranean.

Today there are four races divided in terms of age and type of craft. The best known and most exciting of these is the "Campioni su Gondolini" race, where a series of small, sporting gondolas fly down the Grand Canal to the finishing line at the famous "machina", the spectacular floating stage located in front of the Ca' Foscari palace.

History of the Event

The regata has always been extremely popular with both Venetians and visitors. The first historical record of the event dates back to the mid-13th century, when it was part of the "Festa delle Marie" celebrations. However, it is likely that regattas existed long before this, as Venice has always been a seafaring city and training reserves of oarsmen was a prime necessity. The first visual image of a regatta comes somewhat later, in the View of Venice drawn by Jacopo dé Barbari around 1500. This map includes a detail of a group of boats with the word "regata" written at the side. From there onwards the regatta became a favourite subject with scene painters wishing to capture the festive spirit of the city. The etymology of the word is uncertain, but it probably derives from aurigare, a verb used in the 16th century as a synonym for racing, and since then the term has come to mean a boat race in all the main European languages. Originally, regattas were either races between boatmen and gondoliers or regate grandi (organized for special religious or civic occasions).

In 1841, the Municipality of Venice requested the Austrian authorities to proclaim an annual "boat race along the Grand Canal, organized by the local authorities to encourage gondoliers to uphold the honour of their famed skills". In 1866 when Venice became part of the Kingdom of Italy, the focus of the event changed, and instead of just a race, the regattas became a celebration of the glorious history of the Republic of Venice. Despite this, it was not until 1899, the year of the 3rd International Biennale Art Exhibition, that this was officially recognised by Count Filippo Grimani, Mayor of Venice, who coined the name, "Regata Storica".

Today’s Races

The Venetian regata has always consisted of various races with different kinds of boat (originally these included galleys, peatoni, and barges, as well as lighter boats rowed by two or more oarsmen).

On the day of the "Regata Storica", St Mark's Bay and the Grand Canal are packed with boats of every shape and size, filled with loudly cheering, local supporters. Originally, to clear the course of the race and to keep order, the regatta was preceded by a fleet of bissone (typical parade boats), with noblemen standing in the bows, armed with bows and terracotta shot (balote), which they used to pelt any particularly unruly spectators. Today, the bissone still head the procession, but they only have a ceremonial function.

Will you be in Venice next weekend? Clearly, the Regata Storica is a Can't-Miss event. Enjoy being a part of the cheering crowds! And consider getting in touch with Ermanno to start a conversation about what else to do with your time in this fabled Italian city.
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