1841 can be considered the year when modern regattas were born. Before this date, they were occasionally organized as an event of entertainment, power and competition to celebrate the great solemnities of the city, the stately entries of Doges and Dogaresses in the Palazzo Ducale, the elections of the Procurators of San Marco, the visits of rulers or illustrious guests.
The management, depending on the case, was entrusted to the private sector or a Magistracy.
Starting from 1841, the Municipal Congregation of Venice applied to the Austrian authorities for an annual “boat race along the Grand Canal to be carried out at the expense of the Municipality to encourage gondoliers to keep up the honour of their praised skill”.
The race was not yet called “Regatta” but “Boat Race”; the term Regatta appeared in 1856, while that of “Historical Regatta” was established in 1899.
During the fascist period, the Regatta took the name of “Fascist Regatta”, “Great Historical Regatta”, or “Great Royal Historical Regatta”.
In the post-war period, the name that still distinguishes it today of “Historical Regatta” was adopted.
The Regatta has also been held… Away from home. On June 22, 1884, in fact, on the occasion of the Italian general exhibition in Turin, the Regatta was held on the River Po with the presence of 4 bissone (type of boat) and with a race of 9 gondolini in which the champions of the time took part (Zatta, Zanellato, Valesin, Corradini). The race was won by Girolamo Valesin and Pietro Dorigo.
It has been more or less the same for centuries: from Paluo di sant’Antonio (today Giardini) down the Grand Canal, the boats go around the paleto (pole) at Rio della Crose and back to the Machina (floating stage) set up outside Ca’ Foscari.
The route was changed only during fascism. The Machina was moved to the Church della Salute.
It has changed various times. In 1841 the boats taking part were 8; in 1843, they were 7; from 1844 to 1856, they were 9; from 1857 to 1874, they returned to 7; from 1875, they went back to 9 and stayed that way.
Why 9 gondolini? “It is difficult to give an answer – says the journalist of the Gazzettino in an article dated September 1, 1935 – someone says because there are 6 sestieri (districts) and 3 major islands. Is this the true reason?”
On the occasion of the Regatta of 1843, it was decided to paint the boats in the race for the first time. The colours chosen were white, blue, canary yellow, light blue, cendrè (grey), pink and green. Over the years, other alternating colours have also been added, orange and light green (in 1844), brown and purple (in 1856), solferino (magenta) (in honour of the victory of the Italians over the Austrians in the II War of Independence) in 1866, red in 1872.
The colours have remained the same since the regatta of 1892: white, brown, pink, light blue, purple, canary yellow, red, orange.
The only colour which has always been present since 1843 till today is light blue.
It is interesting to note what the Gazzettino of July 22-23, 1952 writes about the colour of the gondolini:
“If a gondolino were always red and green, traditions would always be created, occurrences and reoccurrences would be talked about. Every so many years, it would be said that this or that colour is destined to win. Even the regatta racers would be influenced by it. Each gondolino is repainted with a different colour from that of the previous year to avoid these inconveniences. Since time immemorial, this device has been practised with peace and satisfaction of the regatta racers and their supporters.”
A tradition, now abandoned, was to invite all the participants of the regatta and authorities to dinner on the Thursday before the race. Besides the recreational aspect, the gondoliers used the opportunity to ask the Mayor for amnesties and pardons for any infractions committed during the year.
The newspaper “L’Adriatico” of June 28, 1912, gives a perfect also historical description:
“And from the beginning of the 19th century, the dinners were offered occasionally by the Lordship or by private individuals to those who raced in the regattas. They took on a stable form, which then became a tradition by the name of disnar dei regatanti. The municipality offered them to those who, after the race, were to become the heroes of the oar.
And since the regattas were always held on Sunday, on the previous Thursday, the Town Hall invited the eighteen members of the race, the reserve gondoliers, the four patrons and the stern rowers of the municipal bissone to dinner. These were joined by the Municipality officials in charge of organizing the event. The first banquets were held in the city’s most remote trattorias, especially in S.Marta, S.Margherita, S.Pietro di Castello, S.Gio. in Bragora. Then, as times progressed, more central locations and places of a higher level were chosen. Nowadays, the event follows in the most renowned trattorias with a menu a little different from the simple and strictly Venetian one that was served many years ago and which consisted in risoto coi figadini (risotto with livers), carne coi pevaroni (meat with peppers), figà garbo e dolse in tortiera (sweet and sour liver), polastro rosto co la salata (roast chicken and salad), dolse e fruti (cake and fruit).
It would be interesting to describe the past banquets, the stories of what happened there, the account of the debates of a technical nature among the gondoliers, resolved, in most cases, by the judges. Peace made with kisses and hugs between gondoliers in disagreement with each other for issues arising at the ferry dock or in the fragia (fellowship) of the same ferry dock. The more or less impromptu poetic improvisations recited by older regatta racers and many other very interesting details.”
It should be recalled that the mayor Riccardo Selvatico at the end of the disnar of July 22, 1893, pronounced what is still considered one of the most beautiful poems written about the Regatta.
The flag has always been the symbol of victory for the regatta racers. Originally the flags, tied to a bag of money, were displayed on a rack at the edge of the machina and had to be grabbed from the bow or stern rower; this custom lasted until the late 19th century.
The flags were red (for the first place), light blue (for the second), green (for the third), yellow (for the fourth).
After unification in honour of the Italian flag, they became respectively, red (for the first place), white (for the second), green (for the third), light blue (for the fourth)
Testi: Giuseppe Monaro