Venetian dream boat: Ship of fools sails again

Two centuries after it was destroyed by French soldiers, Venice's historic shipyard is to rebuild the city's most famous, and preposterous, vessel – a floating palace of gold leaf. Peter Popham reports

In its final incarnation, Venice's great golden barge, the Bucintoro, was perhaps the most preposterous vessel ever built, a blazing symbol of the Venetian Republic's inflated sense of its own splendour and importance.

Covered in gold leaf, loaded down with statues, crystal and velvet drapes and powered by 168 oarsmen, its only function, according to Goethe, "was to show to the people their princes in all their magnificence". It made the modern floating bordellos that blast their way into the Lagoon these days look quite purposeful by comparison. Its one fixed task, come Ascension Day, was to sail out into the middle of the lagoon – with other, humbler vessels swarming in its wake – where the Doge would ceremoniously toss a gold ring into the waves, cementing Venice's marriage to the sea for another year.

This gilded monster of hubris met its horrible comeuppance in 1798, two years after the destruction of the republic by Napoleon, when French soldiers stripped it of all its gold and set it alight. It is said to have burnt for three days, but was still afloat when the flames were doused and was used as a floating prison for 25 years before being scrapped.

And now this crazy boat is to sail again. After more than a decade of trying, a businessman and retired colonel from Messina in Sicily, an adoptive Venetian for half a century, has raised sufficient funds to begin constructing a replica of the Bucintoro at Arsenale, Venice's historic shipyard, using the techniques and materials that were employed in the construction of the last vessel to bear the name – at least the third and possibly the fifth – in 1719.

"We will build it in the old way, of wood, using all the old technology, reviving the techniques used in the past," Colonel Giorgio Paterno, 71, said yesterday.

"Our idea is to help Venice recover its former glory and its old spirit. It is sad to imagine Venice in a state of decadence: we want to see it splendid, happy, magnificent and prosperous as it was in its prime."

The Italian press claims that the Bucintoro will be built in two years, but Col Paterno said: "We'll build it as fast as we can but we're not in a hurry. We have enough money to start the project – in fact the first orders for materials have already been put in – but we are still seeking more contributions and other sponsors because the running and maintenance costs of the ship will be substantial."

The cost is estimated at €20m (£16m) and Colonel Paterno, who heads the Fondazione Bucintoro which is behind the project, hopes that at least a symbolic sum will be provided by France. The foundation has written to President Nicolas Sarkozy suggesting he contributes, "by way of reparation" for "Napoleon's vandalism." A response is awaited.

The first version of Bucintoro, whose name may derive from "burcio", a type of Venetian barge, and "oro", meaning gold, was built in 1311, and from the outset the point was to provide a flattering floating showcase for the Doge. Venetian nobles were sheltered under a red velvet canopy, the doge himself under a purple one. At least two more versions of the ship were built in succeeding centuries, the final 1719 model being the most elaborate and luxurious of all. Its berth in Arsenale was known as "casa del Bucintoro" (Bucintoro's house). Only dependents of Arsenale were permitted the honour of rowing her, four to an oar. The ship's captain, navigator and helmsman were all dignified with the rank of admiral.

Forty reserve oarsmen were also on hand as well as 40 sailors, though what they would have been required to do besides serve drinks to the great and good is hard to imagine. Perhaps rescue them in the event of an emergency: the vessel's enormous red velvet saloon had 90 seats and 48 windows and space for 250 guests in all – the Doge and his court plus 200 more.

The last version of the Bucintoro took 10 years to complete, finally setting sail in 1729. But by this time the republic was well past its best, having lost most of its overseas possessions including the Peloponnese, and increasingly feeling the heat from upstart marine powers such as Trieste and Livorno. The last Bucintoro may have been intended as a gesture of defiance but with all that superfluous luxury it was overwhelmingly decadent. From being the symbol of the city's glory it became the symbol of its vanity. Its Napoleonic trashing had a brutal sort of justice to it.

Why build a new one? The foundation intends the ship to become "the most visited floating museum in the world", but for Col Paterno there is more to it than that.

"Invaded by so many million tourists," he says, "the city risks losing its identity, losing its cultural connection with its own history. It's not enough to live in the future, the city needs to connect with and remember its glorious past." The new Bucintoro, he believes, will help to do that.

And crewing the new barge, like crewing the original, will become an honour for which people compete. "There will be no engine, the barge will be driven by oars like the original," he said. "We plan to hold an international competition to select the oarsmen."

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