Rowing in Venice as a necessity
Rowing in Venice was the way to move around. Or sailing in the open lagoon. Rowing is respectful towards the salt marshes of the lagoon and towards the ancient palaces built on petrified wooden pilings as it provokes no wake. Rowing or sailing in Venice and in its lagoon is also a state of mind. Slow, silent and peaceful.
Rowing on the back of the island of Giudecca with my grandfather is one of the past memories I cherish most. It lies under my skin: in the night, I often dream of rowing around the silent canals of Venice and I feel happy. I wish I could row so well also for real, but I am determined to improve with my new traditional wooden boat “sanpierota” 🙂
However, I understand when, looking at the past, we feel there’s something missing in our present lives. Nostalgia is tricky, though. The past looks more attractive when confronted with the vulgarity of the present time, but only because memory is selective.
Venice and modernity
Moreover, Venice is a city where modernity has never been excluded. Think of the innovative methods applied by the industrial district of the Arsenale or of Murano with its glass industry. Not to mention how Venice welcomed the industrial revolution in the 19th century —did you know the largest pasta factory in Italy was on the Giudecca island? And let’s not forget the controversial foundation of Porto Marghera in 1917.
The amphibious nature of Venice between past and future
As the architect Gianmario Guidarelli points out, there are two large buildings at the opposite sides of the Grand Canal that well express the amphibious nature of this city between past and future. One is the majestic gothic Doge’s palace, once the government and judicial heart of the Serenissima. Covered in white Istrian limestone and pink marble from Verona. The other one is the futuristic container of cars in Piazzale Roma, the black and white garage designed by Eugenio Miozzi in 1931 in reinforced concrete —till the 1950s the largest covered garage in Europe.
So is enjoying rowing a traditional wooden boat in Venice just an expression of this refusal of modernity and good for nostalgic, old people trapped in their past memories of a no longer existing Venice?
Oh, well. It works as a sport for the regattas or as physical exercise. It also works to involve tourists in an experience of Venice teaching them the typical face-forward, standing rowing technique Venetians have adopted for centuries. Or it can be a job, as that of the gondolier. Anything else?
Rowing classes at Venice on Board
The three young men at Venice on Board (www.veniceonboard.it) think different. Nicola Ebner, Damiano Tonolotto and Emiliano Simon founded their association in 2014 and since then they have promoted quite an unexpected new thinking about rowing. While they give short rowing lessons to tourists, too, to them it is important to bring Venetians back to their canals as it happened twenty years ago, when they were young children and they rowed their boats around as if it were the most natural thing, as riding a bike would be for any other child.
Getting back to rowing as an everyday activity
Rowing can be part of the Venetian everyday life. Normality. So the goal of Venice on Board is to bring back that relation that got lost while the use of motorboats has increased at the expense of slowness and safety. Safety, right: just in the last few weeks more boat accidents have taken place due to excess of speed and inexperience and more damage has been recorded in the monuments due to motorboats’ wake.
Residents that live in Venice have then a chance to learn how to row in the canals of their city thanks to the activity of these young men. This is not like rowing in the open lagoon where there are no obstacles. It’s more about city’s traffic. How to turn. Who goes first. How to stop or dock and move aside. But also to understand tides, the water currents changing while you go this or the other way.
Maintaining old traditional boats
Boats used by Venice on Board are all old boats the association bought and restored.
Like the “s’ciopon” (a traditional wooden boat used for hunting in the lagoon) I have rowed a few days ago. Born at the Squero in San Trovaso in 1962 and back to its canals. Or the gondola designed by one of the best “squerarioli” of Venice, Giovanni Giupponi: an over fifty-year old boat, abandoned. Just one more challenge, as nobody would bet they could bring it back to life.
Rescuing a boat which is over 50 years old is quite a complex work. It takes more time and energy to restore rather than to replace. And yet, this is part of the mission of these Venetian young men. These restored boats are then used to teach the residents how to reclaim again their public water space in the city.
I enjoyed talking with them about restoring an old boat. They see old boats abandoned in the canals while rowing around the city. Or someone calls them and asks them if they can take care of the boat. It’s a challenge as it implies to get acquainted with ancient boat building techniques and expertise that risk to be forgotten.
What to do with restored old Venetian boats
While they are not the only ones that restore old boats, it’s the way they re-use them that makes a difference. And so, more and more, in the “sestiér” of Cannaregio where they operate aside another excellent rowing association (www.rowvenice.org), it’s become more and more frequent to find the canals busy with people rowing at the “Voga alla Veneta” style.
However, the best reward is to realise that many of the residents that took a rowing course with Venice on Board have bought a traditional boat after learning. Significantly, most of the people contacting them live in Venice, but were not born here. They are no longer too young, but passionate. There are the young ones, too, and the Venice born elderly people of the area do support this activity and you see them watching and commenting while they see the Venice on Board staff teaching.
Towards a different future
So it’s all about seeds spread in the water of Venice. If this is not futuristic, what else? Insofar as I can in my small way, I will also do my best to follow this new philosophy.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy