Venice, 2nd September 2021 – How do you learn to row? No one teaches you; you just have to get on board and begin, and row for hours, years. It takes concentration, sweat and effort. You row with your head, arms, expertise and with your heart. You row because you respect and love Venice, its 1600 years of history and its lagoon. You row because you feel it, like burning flames that never extinguish, not even when you are 75 years old. His eyes still mirror the passion for rowing and the will to win and be “The king of the oar”, the prince of Venice. Vianello Gianfranco Crea hasn’t been rowing since 1996, when he participated to his last Historical Regatta. A farewell that has lasted for 25 years, because it is important to know when to stop. He won everything, got dozens of flags and, between 1977 and 1983, together with Palmiro Fongher, won the competition with the gondolino seven times in a row. A man that perhaps learnt first how to row and then how to speak, with that kind of genuine love that is typical of past generations.
“My grandfather, my grandfather’s brothers, the children of my grandfather’s brothers and my granfather’s children. They all rowed –Crea recalls – we were a dynasty. At that time, the Historical Regatta was almost considered as a matter of life or death, and a matter of public image, for sure. The Regattas were the symbol of the Venetian life while unfortunately, nowadays, it is no more like it used to be. Times have changed, and the invention of motorboats have changed the way in which youngsters used to live within the lagoon. It’s a pity though, because rowing is a form of art, and it is part of the ancient Venetian culture”.
An event that evolved throughout time, and which has existed since 1300. Although it has changed several names (Regata, Regata veneziana, Regata reale, Regata fascista, Regata storica) the event is still the most renowned that takes place in Venice, and which every year is celebrated on the first Sunday of September along the Grand Canal.
“The great boom of the Regatta arrived in the 1930s and lasted until the 1980s, due to the great popularity of the event and its great development which involved the whole community” – he explains – “If you won the Historical Regatta in the 40s, 50s or 60s you were treated like a prince. Everyone wanted to win the prizes and we all knew that we could succeed only by training very hard and by giving our best to beat the others. The Historical Regatta has ancient roots since it was established hundreds of years ago. At the beginning, it was monopolized by Venetian aristocrats and gondoliers while later, when the association Manin was established, gondoliers were gathered in stazi(a pier in which gondoliers dock their gondolas) and so, from that time on, everyone aimed at improving their technique. As a consequence, the participation to the Regatta was also extended to the people living on the islands of Pellestrina, Burano and Treporti, who added their rowing technique and their different culture”.
Crea won 13 times the red flag, which is given to the winning couple. It is a few days before the competition, which will be held on September 5th, that Gianfranco Crea recalls his old and glorious days.
“To me, the most important edition was the one in which, Palmiro Fongher and I were crowned as “Re del Remo” (The king of the oar) in 1981, following the tradition according to which who used to win five Historical Regattas in a row got a laurel wreath – he explains –. That was a great achievement. At that time, my uncles, who were already rather old, told me that it was the “cherry on top” missing to our family”. This is a title that remains, a great thing in life”
To win the Historical Regatta you need everything: technique, power, and expertise. “I have always said that the venetian rowing technique is a cultural matter – the champion claims – you have to row for 40 minutes, using your expertise in order to get the best result with the minimum effort”. The strongest rivals? “I’ve always respected andchallenged everybody” – he recalls – “Sergio Tagliapietra “Ciaci”, gave his life to the Regattas and to him, hats off. There also was “Strigheta” and the Fongher brothers, everybody was great”.
Boats in the competition play a key role and tell the true essence of Venice. “First, they used to compete only by using gondolas or gondolini, and only later other boats were used – he says – the gondolino is the most elegant and technical boat to row and as such, only those who have paid their dues can row with it. Originally, the gondolino was used as a form of transport to go and get a bit of fresh air in the lagoon. As a matter of fact, the owners of the squeri (shipyard) compete to create the most beautiful gondolino. Women have the mascarate, a sort of skull, a lighter boat, that originally was used by fishermen from Burano and Pellestrina who had to run to the Rialto market and sell the catch. Then we have the caorline, boats used by greengrocers and fishermen which had 4 or 6 oars used both for fishing and carrying around vegetables. Moreover, it was used as a place to sleep. Last but not least, the pupparini, which were used by Venetian aristocrats to go hunting in the sandbanks as we can see in the paintings of Carpaccio. This boat is sharp, very difficult to build and as such, designed and produced in the finest squeri of the city”.
For long, Crea’s name has also been connected to his craftsmanship as a master shipwright, activity that he carries out in the shipyard, located in the island of Giudecca. Here, perfection is sought every day and, together with the love for the Venetian lagoon, typical venetian boats are created and restored. In this shipwright venetian gondolas, the symbol of Venice, are produced. “There are just three shipyards left in the whole world that still create gondolas, which is actually the most difficult boat to make since it is a work that stands halfway between the one of the squerarolo (the one who works inside the shipyard) and the one of the gondolier. As a matter of fact, when you create the gondola, you have to feel involved within the gondolier’s job, you have to know how much it weighs and in which canals it will go since not every canal is the same – he explains -. There is the whole city of Venice inside a gondola, six arts that represent our craftsmanship: those who build the oars, blacksmiths, engravers, decorators and then, who make it”.
Free spirit and independent, when he was young Crea worked for some months as a gondolier and then, for 18 years he worked as a fisherman in the lagoon, attracted by the surrounding environment.
“At the end of 1965, the lagoon was a pristine environment, with thousands of fishes of all kinds. Nevertheless, when I realized that pollution wouldn’t have stopped, and I began to see thousands of dead fishes in the lagoon, I got scared and I thought that I couldn’t live by doing that job anymore – he recalls -. So I went back to school, and at the beginning of the 80s I became a master shipwright”.
At 75 years old, he still works passionately all day long, although the demand of wooden boats in the last few years has fallen dramatically, consequently to the diffusion of boats made of plastic.
“My dear friend Ciaci used to say that “The secret of rowing is rowing itself”. To the youngsters I say that they have to go rowing. In the end the boat will take you, but you have to row for hours, years – he concludes -. When I was a young boy, they used to say to me “Since you will have to work, it’s better if you chose a job that you like and you will enjoy yourself while working” and so I did. To the youngsters I wish it will happen the same.