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The Fellini Museum oarsmen showcase a rhinoceros sculpture on the Grand Canal (courtesy Comune di Rimini)

VENICE — For a fleeting few hours on Sunday, September 5, the Grand Canal of Venice evoked the vivid views painted by Carpaccio and Canaletto. The Bucintoro, the bissonas, and other ancient boats, like strange beasts that wake up for a day from a year-long sleep, plied the waters they used to rule. And in the imperceptible manner in which these waters are permanently changing, the city has kept transforming in subtle yet important ways since it was first built in the 5th century by people, it is believed, who were fleeing the barbarians’ invasions of the dying Western half of the Roman Empire.

The squads set off on the pupparin, a sleek, swift boat that was used by families in the past. (courtesy Vela Spa)

The Historical Regatta reenacts in full pomp and pageantry the return to Venice of Caterina Corner, Queen of Cyprus, Armenia, and Jerusalem, in 1489. This year’s naval procession can be considered the first one to restore the much-anticipated event to its pre-COVID glory, as the 2020 regatta was a more humble affair. 

And in a city whose vitality has been drained for decades by the unholy trinity of mass tourism, climate change, and now the pandemic, there is much to be said about carnivals and feasts that are mere shadows of their former selves. To some critics, these reenactments of former glories may feel more like a parody. The unrelenting forces of the economy and demographics, they fear, are turning Venice — which this year is celebrating its 1600th anniversary — into a floating museum or, worse, a theme park.

A merry crowd cheers on the racers. (by and courtesy the author for Hyperallergic)

Yet the naysayers are belied by the stubborn will of Venice to live on. The Grand Canal was lined by packed boats of rowdy Venetians and rowing associations to watch the parade and cheer the regatta racers. As if to underscore the point, a bright green boat with a young couple speeds ahead; another approaches with a family of three generations. “Roby is pregnant! Roby is pregnant” (“La Roby è encinta!”) exclaims the young girl from the green boat. And the small crowd that heard the good news, in addition to the family for which it was intended, erupted in loud hurrahs and cheers, and one or two salacious comments that are celebrated with loud laughs and harmless spirit.

Fellini’s rhinoceros, a surprise participant from the Venice Film Festival, is paraded outside the Doge’s Palace. (courtesy Sebastiano Casellati)

This year, the world of art and cinema took part in the regatta too. A sculpture represented the female rhinoceros in Federico Fellini’s 1983 movie And the Ship Sails On (E la nave va). The extraordinary participant, brought by the Fellini Museum of Rimini to attend the Venice Film Festival as well, navigated the Grand Canal on a bissona rowed by four oarsmen. The sculpture in jesmonite is a faithful reproduction of the one created by Valeriano Trubbiani for the film. 

Two young oarsmen from the Giudecca rowing association approach the finish line as a bissona is headed back to the dockyard. (by the author for Hyperallergic)

Perhaps somewhere in this annual event and its modern quirks lies the secret to the survival of Venice, for its misleading appearance of fragility disguises its capacity to assimilate even what’s ugly into something alluring. The boats that participate in the regatta no longer serve the uses of the past: to transport people or goods; to fish or to police the waters. And against the tides of history, these fossilized naval specimens may be helping Venice to stay alive, for they may have no use in the modern economy, yet they serve the higher purpose of beauty, which makes life worth living.

The Nettuno bissona, one of the twelve ceremonial boats that reenact the return of Caterina Corner. (by the author for Hyperallergic)
The gondolini race is possibly the most anticipated one. It’s a lighter and slimmer version of the gondola, especially designed for the Historical Regatta in 1825. (courtesy Vela Spa)
The Dogaressa, modeled after the gondola used by the Doge’s wife, passes by the Serenissima bissona. (by the author for Hyperallergic)
The retinue of the pageant as it opens the waters to the competitors. (by the author for Hyperallergic)

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Avedis Hadjian

Avedis Hadjian is a journalist and writer based in Venice. He is the author of Secret Nation: The Hidden Armenians of Turkey. His work as a correspondent has taken him to Eastern Europe, the former...

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