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."

Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Sport
sportVan Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
Life and Style
Martha Stewart wrote an opinion column for Time magazine this week titled “Why I Love My Drone”
lifeLifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot... to take photos of her farm
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

VB.Net Developer - £40k - Surrey - WANTED ASAP

£35000 - £40000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: .Mid Level V...

Digitakl Business Analyst, Slough

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Competitive Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Dig...

Mechanical Estimator: Nuclear Energy - Sellafield

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Car, Medical, Fuel + More!: Progressive Recruitmen...

Dynamics NAV Techno-Functional Consultant

£50000 - £60000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: An absolutely o...

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

Eye on the prize

Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

Women's rugby

Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices