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 in 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 time, financing the regattas shifted from the Republic to private individuals, who were often foreign princes. In 1797, when the Republic officially ceased to exist, the regattas certainly did not, and in that same year, the city’s democratic government announced two races for its citizens. The modern regata dates back to 1841, when the organizational expenses moved back from the private to the public sphere. In that year, 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”.
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).
Today, the most popular race is the gondolini regatta. 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.
The key points and stages in the regatta are the following:
– the spagheto (rope) marking the starting line in front of the Sant’Elena gardens;
– the paleto (turning post) driven into the middle of the Grand Canal in front of the Santa Lucia railway station, the point at which the winners traditionally take the lead;
– the machina, an elaborately carved, gaily coloured floating structure moored in front of Ca’ Foscari, that constitutes both the finishing line and the stage where the cash prizes and pennants are presented.
The regatta pennants are the prize every Venetian rower dreams of: red for a winner, white (originally light blue) for second place, green for third and blue for fourth (originally yellow and depicting a pig, an animal traditionally renowned for its slow, sluggish nature).