Swimming in a city of water is useful
Swimming in Venice has always been necessary. Galliccioli in his chronicles of the 18th century connected life longevity to constant exercise in the water and wrote that Angelus Heremita in 1312 was almost 100 years old thanks to his daily swimming.
But also Giovanni Grevembroch in his “Habits of the Venetians” in 1731 pointed out that in the summer all over the canals of Venice, you could see people learning to swim with the help of wooden boards or some kind of floating “lifebelts”.
The pleasure of swimming in the Grand Canal
In fact, this sport was more than useful. It was considered a real pleasure, too! William Dean Howells, the consul of America in Venice between 1861 and 1865 wrote in his “Venetian Life”:
Another pleasure of modern dwellers in Venetian palaces [was] the privilege of sea-bathing from one’s own threshold… when the tide comes in fresh and strong from the sea the water in the Grand Canal is pure and refreshing; at these times it is a singular pleasure to leap from one’s door-step into the swift current, and spend a half-hour, very informally, among one’s neighbors there.
Health therapies and water
Starting in the first half of the 19th century Venice pursued the fashion of water therapies, as many other European cities. Once its role of the past as trading centre or political power faded, Venice turned more and more into a tourism oriented town.
Howells recalls the presence of “bath-houses” in front of the Doge’s Palace especially for the Venetian ladies, where
they saturated themselves a good part of the day, and drank coffee, and, possibly, gossiped.
Tommaso Rima and his bath-houses
He is referring to the baths founded by Tommaso Rima who built the first floating bath-house in Venice in 1833. This bath-house was anchored by the entrance of the Grand Canal, by the Salute church, opposite St Mark’s square. It would float there during the summer, while in the winter it was maintained in Murano.
Swimming in the water of the Grand Canal and St Mark’s basin was indeed considered a healthy activity. It became a real business combining the thermal benefits and the unique beauty of art and architecture.
You could also find a cafe, a large room with curtains, two loggias, rooms where you could change or rest. You could take warm and cold baths, fresh and salt water ones, water or steam baths. And take a shower.
Swimming Gondolas for women and Pompeian baths
As Howells points out, women were also allowed. In fact, they used the so-called “sirene” (mermaids) boats and also some swimming gondolas, open at the bottom. Here a metal cage allowed women to get in the water and swim without being seen.
Hotels in Venice also adopted bath-houses. In particular, Palazzo Grassi along the Grand Canal between 1845 and 1857 was a hotel with meeting rooms, cafes and a bath-house nearby inspired by Pompeian houses. A porch, elegant columns and friezes, marble bath-tubs and flower pots surrounded you while you could also take advantage of a library and a reading room.
Swimming as a sport
The first one was the English poet Lord Byron. He loved swimming. He engaged himself in a competition against a Venetian, Angelo Mengaldo and a friend, Alexander Scott. Leaving from Lido island, the three swam reaching the Grand Canal, the Rialto bridge and reached the area where the train station is now. Lord Byron swam for almost four hours and won. That was in 1818.
The Byron Cup and the “Miglio Marino”
As a memory of this enterprise the Lord Byron competition was arranged for the first time in 1920 and in 1926 it was renamed the Byron Cup. Seven km long, it covered the whole Grand Canal, starting from the train station and reaching the Santa Maria Elisabetta square at the Lido. Needless to say, it was arranged when the tide was getting low and moved towards the open sea.
Two swimming pools in the open waters of the lagoon
In the open waters of the lagoon two swimming pools then opened and operated till the early 1970s. In 1925 Giovanni “Nane” de Pità opened a first swimming pool right behind the train station and started training Venetian kids twelve hours a day. The swimming pool was named “Rari Nantes”.
Another swimming pool, the so-called “Luigi Passoni”, eventually Veneziana Nuoto, was then founded by Filippo Corso in 1928 at the Zattere.
The same year when the Passoni pool opened, Giancarlo Paulon was born. I met him at his place. I felt welcome and overwhelmed. His whole studio is an incredible “wunderkammer” in regards to swimming. Medals, cups, photos, plaques, trophies are spread all over. It was easy to understand how this man had excelled in this sport.
Paulon could write the history of swimming in Venice in the last 80 years. I hope he will. He started at the Passoni and while helping thousands of Venetian kids, he trained himself. There, he also met his wife when she was 17 years old and they have just celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.
Paulon’s sportive curriculum is impressive. He also told me about the woollen swimsuits, the first swim every year on March 19th, “‘na tociada svelta”, just a quick touch as it was freezing cold. How they trained in large concrete containers at the Giudecca island.
I was struck, while talking about the several competitions in Italy or abroad, to understand how sports and fascism and war intertwined. As when his parents didn’t send him to Genua as they feared bombing. Or when they swam to the Alberoni at the Lido to see the Conte di Savoia ship burn after being hit by a firebomb…
Today this sport is very different, but the lagoon waters could still welcome swimming events. The Associazione Nuotatori dei Murassi has arranged competitions along the Grand Canal and in the lagoon near the Lido during the Redentore and the Historical Regatta festivities. If recent escapades and stupidity have labelled swimming in the Grand Canal in a negative way, let’s hope this historical tradition will not be obscured. As sports and high quality entertainment can “swim” together…
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy