Thursday, June 16, 2011

On Making a Spectacle of Myself at the Regata of the Maritime Republics

 photo credit: Jen
The Doges of Venice and Genova greet each other in Piazza San Marco
Each year for the last 56 years La Regata Storica delle Antiche Repubbliche Marinare Italiane has been held in one of the four old seagoing republics of Italy: Amalfi, Genova, Pisa, or Venice. It consists of a race between four large galleys constructed according to 12th-Century models, each with a crew of eight rowers and one helmsman, over a straight 2 km long course.  Before the race there is a long procession (or corteo) in which 80 representatives from each city are dressed in the late 15th-century costumes of doges, knights, clergy, tradesmen, ladies and noblemen.

After the long decline of the Venetian Republic began--their trade routes superseded and their coffers depleted by a long futile war against the Muslim East--it became possible for rich outsiders to buy their way into the Venetian nobility for a small fortune.

My temporary elevation to Venetian nobility, for the purpose of the corteo, cost me nothing but the embarrassment of being seen in tights. A cost, I'd soon realize, that fell more heavily upon any observers than myself. 

I didn't know a thing about what I was agreeing to do when I said yes. I was at a birthday party in the piano nobile of a palazzo near San Zaccaria. My son Sandro was running maniacally around the frescoed portego with three other pre-schoolers, and I was doing my best to follow conversations being carried on in Italian beneath a large arbor on the terrace. A friend suddenly turned to me and said they needed two men the following week for a parade. I didn't think to wonder why none of the other Venetian men around me offered to do it. One actually begged off because he said he was blind without his glasses, and his glasses wouldn't have gone with the period dress. But why not the heir to the palazzo, who lived there with his two parents, and whose family tree I'd just seen hanging on a wall inside, going back nobly to the 15th Century? Wouldn't that be something?--to see the descendants of actual noble Venetian families in the dress of their forebears!

Well, perhaps there were such descendents among the 80 of us arrayed behind the banner of San Marco, but my roots in Venice stretched back to last November. There were moments in our slow march from just east of Via Garibaldi to Piazza San Marco that I felt more than a little disingenuous as some excited tourist aimed a camera in my direction. I'd remind myself that plenty of outsiders lived in the 15th-century Republic of Venice--but none of them, it's safe to say, were born in California or moved here from Brooklyn. 

Luckily, there were plenty of things to keep me from obsessing overly much on issues of authenticity. The sun, for one, which was quite hot and blinding. And my hat.

I'm sure that among the countless old sayings of at least one of Italy's many dialects there must be something that runs along the lines of:

Don't fret too much about the tights because it's the hat that will kill you.

For the four days since I'd gone to the Lido to try on the velvet doublet and mantle of my costume I'd been worrying about wearing those damn tights. But it turned out my hat was so tight I literally I had no space for any thought other than how much my head hurt.

In the dressing room I'd pondered, hopefully, perhaps it's just supposed to rest precariously upon my head like a Jackie O pillbox. But none of my fellow noblemen rocked their hats that way.

I mentioned it to the man in charge of wardrobe. He assured me in melifluous Italian that the hat would stretch once we got out into the heat of the sun.

It didn't. Or if its circumference expanded at all in the heat, so did my big head.  

But, as I mentioned, there was the sharp lance of the sun in my eyes to occupy me as well, and, in a short time, the slow but steady formation of blisters on my feet.

The noblemen with whom I shared a row also tended to lag too far behind the row of courtiers in front of us, so a very helpful women associated with the Venetian contingent would appear suddenly at my side gesticulating enthusiastically and repeating, "Avanti, avanti!"

I wanted to tell her it really was not my fault. I knew we'd dropped too far behind the guys in front of us, but I was bound not to break ranks with my fellow nobles--they who seemed so relaxed in their properly-fitting caps as to even play to the crowd a bit. Not all of them, but the two nearest to me. They looked good doing it, I thought, regal but friendly. We hadn't had the least bit of dramatic coaching before the march, no guidance of any kind on our particular characters, so this was all improvised as far as I could tell, or born of the experience of previous processions. I thought of doing some of the same kind of thing but I was so absorbed in standing up straight, not tripping, not limping, and not grimacing in pain, that I'm afraid I cut a rather sober figure. A noble with just the slightest hint of a smile, hiding the pain of some great lost love...

And yet through all this discomfort the whole thing was quite fun. I'd never done anything like this before--no Renaissance Faire or Shakespeare plays or plays of any kind. And I had no idea how popular an event it was until someone said, just before the start, that RAI 2 was filming live, and I saw all the people crowded along the parade route, and the large grandstand stretching along the south side of the Palazzo Ducale, its VIP box filled with uniforms and sashes of office.

Next year the regata will move on to Amalfi and I hope I'll have the chance to do it again. And, more immediately, there is the big Venetian Regata Storica in the fall--in which one gets to be rowed down the Grand Canal in historic dress. How nice that would be! No need to worry about being seen in tights or getting blisters. And I'll make sure to try on my hat at the fitting.


  1. Oh, boy! Men in tights! Darn, where is the photo of you?

    Yes, next time, get to wardrobe early, to get all the good stuff before the other blokes.


  2. Photo of me? Gosh, there must have been a computer glitch and it has been lost!

    Hopefully there will be a next time, tight hat or not.