In Venetian traditions

The Pink Lioness is the name of an association of breast cancer survivors that chose to get together to row dragon boats in Venice and its lagoon.

Located in the premises of a very old rowing club in Dorsoduro founded in 1882, the so-called Reale Società Canottiera Bucintoro, the association Pink Lioness in Venice counts around twenty ladies and is supported by AVAPO.

By the church of Zitelle, the Pink Lioness team rowing along the Giudecca Canal in Venice

The Pink Lioness and its history

It was founded in 2009 and was inspired by the movement “Abreast in a boat” born in Canada in 1997. There, Dr. Donald C. McKenzie understood how the special movement you make to row with a paddle helps rehabilitate women that suffered from breast cancer. In particular, it helps fight a condition called lymphedema, a swelling quite common in those survivors who had their lymph nodes removed. Just imagine the common belief was just the opposite, as you can read here.

The Pink Lioness team rowing along the Giudecca Canal in Venice

The permission to row in the Venetian canals

I called Ms Francesca Baldi of the association Pink Lioness when I read in the news that dragon boats would no longer be allowed in the canals of Venice. Some years ago in fact, someone thought the canals of Venice were too dangerous for kayaks, SUP paddle boards, yoles and dragon boats and proposed to ban them. The presence of motorboats, water taxis and water buses would make it too risky to row on boats that do not belong to the Venetian tradition.

Now that the decision will be applied, the Pink Lioness hope they will instead be allowed to row around Venice and not just in the Giudecca canal or in the open lagoon. Their women rowing pay attention to the traffic, they are familiar with the rules of the canals, the dragon boats are easy to manoeuvre, their helmsman (well, helmswoman) stands, so she is visible and can see other boats approaching. Also, their dragon boat is slightly longer than a gondola is. Francesca hopes the regulation will be changed and dragon boats in the Venetian canals will be welcome.

Rowing on a dragonboat the Pink Lioness along the Fondamenta Ca’ Balà, Venice

The Pink Lioness team crossing the Giudecca Canal

So I went to the Emporio dei Sali, a building where the Bucintoro rowing club hosts the Pink Lioness dragon boats. In the ancient times, this was the place where salt was stored. Now, there are several organisations that use the building, including the museum dedicated to Emilio Vedova.

I knew they had left for their weekly outing and waited for their return. I observed the Giudecca canal. During this last year because of the pandemic, the Giudecca canal has become quiet. No more choppy water, no more big waves. Imagine this is where cruise ships with 4,000 passengers aboard used to pass —and they seem to be still allowed to do it even if the law says they are not.

A barge carrying trucks passed by and then a ferryboat.

A large barge carrying trucks along the Giudecca canal in Venice

Francesca’s words came back to my mind: “When we cross the canal to get behind the Giudecca island and we see a ferryboat approaching, we get scared but then we tell each other, we can make it, we are fast, too!”.

The ferryboat going to Lido, passing by the island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice

The Redentore Church and the Pink Lioness

Then the team appeared. Wow, goose bumps! I thought how beautiful it was. The Redentore church by Andrea Palladio, a gigantic temple dedicated to health, with its fifteen steps like the temple in Jerusalem and then this tiny boat of five women rowing in their pink life jackets and face masks. Both powerful.

Under the bridge along the Zattere, along the Giudecca canal, the Pink Lioness on board of their dragonboat, Venice

Francesca said they had been the first team after the lockdown getting back to rowing. She says, they need to keep social distancing, which means they need to be six instead of twenty rowers. Francesca added, “Someone said we would not make it, too few.” Well, it looked tough, but they row in the sun just beautifully.

Women rowing in Venice and the women’s regattas

The tradition of women rowing is as old as Venice. Even regattas! The first one ever documented dates back to 1493. There are two paintings that come to my mind regarding women rowing.

Paintings about women’s regattas in Venice: Maria Boscola

One is at the Correr Museum in St Mark’s square. It is the portrait of Maria Boscola. Humble origins, likely working in the orchards near Chioggia, Maria Boscola won her first regatta in 1740 and competed for 44 years in a row.

Maria Boscola, courtesy of © Archivio Fotografico – Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia, Venice

In this portrait we see her wearing a straw hat, her brown hair pulled up behind her head and a flower, maybe for the hairdo and an earring. Strong shoulders and five flags. All red except one, the blue one, telling us that once she didn’t get first, just second. Can you read “Primo”? It means “first”, maybe it means “primo premio”, first prize. But if you speak Italian, you know a woman arrives “prima”. Well, believe me, it is already a lot to have her portrait, considering we do not even know when she was born, nor when she died.

The women’s regatta in Gabriel Bella’s painting at the Querini Stampalia Foundation

The other painting belongs to the collection of the Foundation Querini Stampalia. Gabriel Bella represented a women’s regatta along the Grand Canal around 1780. The last regatta before the fall of the Serenissima Republic was held in 1784. I love the red ribbons in their hair, the white dress and, in those sleeves rolled up, you feel the power of their movements while rowing the “battella”.

Regatta of the women along the Grand Canal by Gabriel Bella at the Querini Stampalia Foundation, ca. 1780, Venice

We know when Maria Boscolo won her regattas. We can feel the energy of the ladies rowing along the Grand Canal in front of the Salute church, built to thank the Virgin Mary for the end of the bubonic plague.

A competition against breast cancer

For the Pink Lioness, who are not athletes, rowing is a different competition, requiring more courage than anything else as there is a subtle enemy to fight against the “monster”, as Francesca calls it. Rowing together in Venice along the canals is first of all a rehab therapy. The sense of communion helps be stronger. Twice a week, for 1,5 hours, training in the open air, in the beautiful Venetian lagoon water is just one of their activities. They also arrange events to make women aware of the prevention program against breast cancer, as the Pink Walking, Camminata rosa, gathering more than 700 participants in the last edition.

The dragon-shaped figurehead of the Pink Lioness’ Dragonboat in Venice (upside down)

Most importantly, though, being a team has moved the Pink Lioness to show solidarity to more needy people, as when during the “acqua alta” in 2019 they raised funds for Pellestrina, the island strongly struck by those terrible floods.

Francesca as many Venetian women learnt about the Pink Lioness because you can see them, rowing in the canals of the city. For an association that tries not to ask their members any financial support —and you can help for the paddles, the uniforms, the shirts, the life jackets, the same dragon boats buying their biscuits at the market on the Salute festivity—, visibility is essential.

The quiet Giudecca canal and the Pink Lioness on board of their dragonboat, Venice

I am now looking forward to seeing them back in the Venetian canals and during the Vogalonga, and you?

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

note: if you are happy to support the Pink Lioness project, here is the link:

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Showing 2 comments
  • GailS

    Is the dragon boat they use a traditional Venetian boat? If so, what was it used for? How can one support the organization when in Venice or from abroad?

    • Reply

      Thank you for your question! The dragon boat is not a traditional boat in Venice but the special paddle movement dragon boats only require is the one breast cancer survivors need to fight lymphedema, caused by the removal of lymph nodes. That’s why they chose to row dragon boats instead of traditional Venetian boats. To support the Pink Lioness, please find the link at the end of the article that will show you the IBAN number for a donation. I hope this helps!

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