In a city like Venice, which lives on the water and where the boat is the most normal way to use, it is natural that water races take place there. It is presumed that the first rowing races were friendly competitions between the gardeners of the lagoon islands, carried out on their way to the Rialto market to bring their agricultural products.
But it seems that the first real public competitions arose in the XIII - XIV century when, to be ready to defend the homeland, all citizens had to practice archery and crossbow on holidays. The "shooting range" was the Lido and to reach it there were many public boats, 30 and 40 oars, available to the people.
The crews of the boats began, as a game, to compete with each other, until mass departures were organized. Many gran vogàe (big rowing) participated enthusiastically: all the boats were lined up to start them all together and from here the term rigata or regatta is supposed to derive. Over time, stripes became increasingly present and important in Venetian public life.
In the Regata Storica, rowing, the Venetian sport par excellence, joins the history and splendor of the Serenissima. It is one of the three important annual events in Venice and takes place on the first Sunday of September, after the Feast of the Redeemer (third weekend of July) and before the feast of the Madonna della Salute (21 November).
Since the early years of the Republic, competitions between boats were used to celebrate some event or for the arrival of foreign rulers and ambassadors in the city. In 1315 it was decreed that an annual regatta be held on the occasion of the Festa delle Marie; from that year on, the regatta was accompanied by sumptuous public events and became a moment of great importance and prestige for the Serenissima Republic.
For the occasion, all buildings on the Grand Canal were decorated with flags and tapestries, and a multitude of people gathered on the banks, on the bridges, at the bottom and in the windows of the buildings themselves.
Then, as now, the event was divided mainly into two parts. The first part, the most picturesque, took place with a sumptuous water procession composed of the bissone (decorated parade boats) of the various noble families, led by Bucintoro (the Doge's representative boat) where the Doge himself was, the Dogaressa, together with the highest offices of the state and the most illustrious guests.
The second part, typically sporty, included the races between various types of boats, up to the most important competition: that of the batelìni, today called gondolìni, with two rowers. The first races took place in the open lagoon, then they were limited to the Grand Canal.
Over the centuries there were many variations to competitions: from the 16th century, competitions were also reserved for women, while in the 18th century competitions were created between dwarves and humpbacks.
A constant event over the centuries, after the end of the Republic the annual regatta lost its importance but was never suspended, except during the insurrectionary movements of 1848 until 1866, in the years between 1882 and 1888, and during the Second World War.
Only since 1899 was the regatta called the Historical Regatta; after the annexation of Venice to Italy, it was named Royal Regatta. During Fascism it was renamed again as Fascist Regatta (it was when the gondoliers did not want to participate in a black shirt and dressed in the white striped shirt, which later became their uniform). From 1946 he continued uninterruptedly as Regata Storica.
Today's Regata Storica
In the afternoon of the first Sunday of September of each year, therefore, this great Venetian event is renewed, with the same modalities and the same vitality of the past centuries.
It begins with the historical procession (composed by Bucintoro, with the Doge and the Dogaressa, and by the continuation of bissone and the boats of the Venetian rowing clubs, all with rowers and costumed figures), which recalls the welcome that the Venetians they reserved in 1489 to the Queen of Cyprus, Caterina Cornaro, after her abdication in favor of Venice.
The procession starts from the San Marco Basin and runs across the Grand Canal to the station, then returns back to the Machina (a floating stage with the authorities and judges), located in a corner of the Grand Canal at Ca 'Foscari.
In the second part of the event there are the competitions, divided between 6 specialties, which follow a chronological order:
- mascarete, two-rowed, boys up to 10 years (schìe) and up to 12 and 14 years (maciarèle)
- two-row pupparini, with the very young
- two-rowed mascaretas, with women
- bisse of Lake Garda
- the six-rowed caorlines, which represent the islands and the sestieri
- gondolini with two oars, the champions' regatta, the highlight of the day
The boats are marked with a number, according to a position logic at the start, and are colored. In ancient times the colors corresponded to the various areas of the lagoon and Venice. The color-number combination is:
- canary yellow
The course of the various regattas starts from the San Marco Basin, runs across the Grand Canal to the station, where you go around the "stake" to go back to the Machina, where the jury is housed.
La Machina is sumptuously decorated, with gilded wooden columns, tapestries and branches; there are placed the four flags reserved for the winners: red for the first, white for the second, green for the third, blue for the quarterfinals. This is why the saying: ciapàr flag is synonymous with victory in the regatta, as can also be read in the comedy by Giacinto Gallina: El moroso de la nona.
Until a few years ago, the fourth classified crew was also given a live piglet, but for the right protests of animal rights it was replaced by a glass piglet.
In addition to the prizes that are awarded there is a title that is the most coveted among the racers: the title of the king of the oar; it is awarded, for life, to the racers who have won the regatta of champions on gondolini five times in a row.
From the second half of the 1800s onwards these were the sailors who honored themselves with this title: Luigi Zanellato, in the late 1800s; Albino dei Rossi, detto Stigheta e Marcello Bon detto Ciapate, who won the regattas from '47 to '52; Giuseppe Fongher detto Bepi e Sergio Tagliapietra detto Ciaci, who won the regattas from '69 to '76; Palmiro Fongher e Gianfranco Vianello detto Crea, who won the regattas from '77 to '83.