In Venetian arts and crafts, Venetian history

A boat as an icon of Venice

A boat is for sure the most iconic thing you can imagine describing the city of Venice. I am sure you are thinking of a black lacquered, slow and silent gondola, possibly at sunset. Alternatively, suppose you think of the past of Venice, as a maritime mercantile empire. You may imagine a powerful and fast galley or even a “galeazza” that won at the famous naval battle at Lepanto.

Surely both gondolas and warships are part of the Venetian history soul. But there’s more that needs our attention when it comes to Venice’s maritime heritage. A boat that enabled Venice to become a real wonder was the “trabacolo”. Only one in Venice is still at sea and this is its story.

John Singer Sargent, Behind the Salute boat, 19th century in Venice

John Singer Sargent, Behind the Salute boat, 19th century in Venice with a trabacolo

The trabacolo as a cargo ship: Il Nuovo Trionfo

Its name is “Il Nuovo Trionfo”, the New Triumph. It was not built in Venice but at Cattolica further south along the Adriatic coast in 1926 by one of the most respected boat-building experts of the time, Ferdinando Ubalducci, some said, “with greater than usual care and attention”.

It survived WW2 and its risks to be bombed, sunk or simply requisitioned and in 1951 it passed to Carlo Pinatti in Grado to be acquired in 1970 by a Viennese engineer, Hugo Herrmann who took care of the boat till 2007 and turned the trabacolo in a vessel good for cruising with beautiful wooden boiserie. The Compagnia del Nuovo Trionfo now led by Massimo Gin (president) and Alfredo Zambon (honorary president) was handed the trabacolo in 2007 and now this 92-year old boat needs a lot of our cooperation.

Carlo Pinatti, at the age of 17, on the Trabacolo's eye, 1944

Carlo Pinatti, at the age of 17, on the Trabacolo’s eye, 1944

What’s so special about the Nuovo Trionfo boat? 

A long history of cargo ships

First of all, because it’s the outcome of a long history regarding cargo ships in the Mediterranean Sea. In a trabacolo one can observe the constant development and improvement of the cargo vessels in the area starting from the Byzantine age. While strictly speaking the trabacolo was born over two centuries ago, the technical tradition it refers to goes back to the lateen ships, to the “cocca veneta” and the “marciliana” boats.

With just one deck, two masts with dipping lugsails, high sides and capacious storage, it combined the advantages of a large vessel with those of a small ship. Safe at sea and easy to manoeuvre in ports and canals. The different sail, called “vela al terzo” or “trabacolo sail” made it easier to control the boat and sail close to the wind. You didn’t need a large crew (three or four men) and you could reach a higher efficiency with lower costs. Which is the reason why thousands of trabacoli were built in the Northern Adriatic Sea area, in the Marche up to the Romagna, the Veneto, the Istrian peninsula and the Dalmatian coastline as far south as Albania. When a good idea works, it becomes common heritage.

The Nuovo Trionfo trabacolo sailing, Venice

The Nuovo Trionfo trabacolo sailing, Venice

Archaic echoes: eyes and sheep’s skin

Even when becoming a pure, technological innovation, the trabacolo preserved some of its archaic heritage. Two wide open, colorful eyes, surrounding the actual hawse holes, watch ahead to avoid a shipwreck in the storms or foggy winters of the Adriatic sea. And still on the prow, there’s a wooden piece that used to be covered in sheep’s fur skin, an echo of superstitious rites to ask gods’ protection while crossing the seas.

John Singer Sargent, Venetian boats, Brooklyn Museum, USA

John Singer Sargent, Venetian boats, Brooklyn Museum, USA

A boat delivering construction materials and more

There’s more, though. Especially for those who love Venice, it’s quite clear that whatever we see in Venice came from somewhere else and was shipped in. An artificial city needed to be delivered construction materials such as timber, Istrian limestone, clay, sand, gravel, coal. So when we observe that miracle called Venice in all its elements we should not forget those cargo ships like the trabacolo that brought to the lagoon what you needed for that miracle. Surely we need to thank the expertise of the architects that contributed to Venice’s beauty. But as we know a lot of the ship engineers and “arsenalotti” (ship builders) shared the knowledge to build on marshland, it’s also thanks to those boats like the trabacolo that we can explain why Venice is now here.

And not just. Because Venice needed food, well yes…, the trabacoli were used to bring flour, wheat, wine and fruit like watermelons to the city, which were grown extensively in the area nearby. And next to the watermelons, I hope you don’t mind if I mention the timber that the glass furnaces in Murano needed to produce more colorful crystal wonders.

James Wilson Morrice, Boats at the Public Garden in Venice, ca. 1902

James Wilson Morrice, Boats at the Public Garden in Venice, ca. 1902

The Compagnia Nuovo Trionfo and the restoration project

The Compagnia del Nuovo Trionfo has committed itself to the task of saving the last Trabacolo very seriously. After a first philologically faithful restoration in the shipyard run by Luca Casaril, it became clear that the beautiful wooden boiserie had unfortunately allowed for the rotting of major parts of the hull, with its ribs and centre girder. And while in the past, trees were grown in a distorted form so to be perfect for the construction of some boat’s parts, now this is no longer possible and new techniques are needed for such a restoration.

Synergy with research institutes

The project therefore became an excellent opportunity to work in synergy with universities, innovative businesses and young people, too. The University Institute of Architecture in Venice and in particular the laboratory of photogrammetry with Elisa Costa was involved. You can then retrace with a 3D model the several interventions. At the same time, Nasiertech, a start-up business born within the University of Venice Ca’ Foscari, specialised in nanotechnology developed, with the help of Irene Scarpa, a new product to get rid of mold and fungi.

The Friends of the Nuovo Trionfo

Many Venice’s lovers have financially contributed to the project. Recently a new association was born, the Friends of the Nuovo Trionfo, hoping to get more people involved. The wish is to see the boat back at the Punta della Dogana in one month, at the end of May 2018.

The Trabacolo at the Redentore festivity in Venice with fireworks

The Trabacolo at the Redentore festivity in Venice with fireworks

Ready to offer educational services to schools. Create an itinerary via water among the Arsenale, the Maritime Museum of Venice, the Custom’s House and the Lazzaretto islands in the Venetian lagoon. Participate to the traditional festivities of Ascension, Vogalonga, the Redentore, the Historial Regatta and the Salute. Or why not be part of guided tours with a final cocktail aboard.

Membership Card "Friends of the Nuovo Trionfo"

Membership Card “Friends of the Nuovo Trionfo”

Why restoring a boat?

I hope I have managed to explain why we all should feel committed to the restoration of our Nuovo Trionfo. It seems compulsory to raise funds to restore a work of art or an ancient building. But it sounds somehow fine not to be worried about the last trabacolo. Maybe because we suffer from the idea that crafts are less important than “art”?

I don’t know what you think about Theseus’ paradox. When Plutarch asked whether the ship of Theseus after having been restored by replacing every single wooden part remained the same ship, I would say, no, not the same. Much more than what it was originally.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

If you are happy to contribute to the restoration of the Nuovo Trionfo, here is the link:

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Showing 4 comments
  • Jill Kerby

    As always, Luisella peels away and reveals another layer of the real Venice’s fascinating history. Historic boats resonate with lots of places: Nova Scoria, Canada has its ‘Bluenose’; Dublin, it’s ‘Asgard’ – both important symbols of maritime & historic events…and Venice now has its Nuovo Trionfo to remind them of what Venice once was before it and turned its back on trade and the sea. A symbol, perhaps of the need to engage with the world again, other than via mass tourism?

    • Dear Jill, thank you for this comment, so appropriate to compare it to the Asgard and the Bluenose! Considering Venice didn’t manage to preserve one single galley, the value of this boat is amazing. And, it can still sail around! We need to spread the word that with a simple donation, we can all contribute! Grazie!

  • Rob Slapikoff

    Very intersting Luisella. I agree with you that the boat should be restored – it is a piece of history. In Boston we have a ship that is well preserved – the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides. It still sails on the ocean. The Trabacolo should be preserved as well and kept on the sea.

  • Thank you, Rob! This is another great example! I hope that the money needed to restore it will soon be found! It’s so contradictory of this city today to allow large cruise ships in the lagoon and not raise the funds to restore a piece of our history.

The poster for "Ea stansa dea cipria" by Mattia Berto with Eleonora Fuser