In the Arsenal of Venice is still the vast covered shipyard which once huoused the DOGE’S fabulous barge called BUCINTORO (Bucentaur). It was normally stored above its slipway to be launched into the water, after caulking and refitting, just before civil and religious ceremonies.
The most important of these was the SENSA (ascension day), when the DOGE accompanied by the signoria went aboard for this visit to San Nicolò di LIDO to celebrate the traditional desponsatio (marriage) with the sea.
Whether the ritual was more liturgical or more political is not the concern of this study, but it is good to recall in any case that
the entire Venetian maritime balance in the Adriatic was linked to this function and this ship, even though in appearance shrouded in
The etymology of BUCINTORO is uncertain, as is the number of the DOGE’S ships that succeeded one another through the centuries.
Only four are know for sure, although the ancient chronicles recount the existence of “a ducal Ship”, perhaps derived from a similar Byzantine tradition preceding the historical encounter at Venice in 1177 between Emperor Frederik Barbarossa and Pope Alexander 3, period to which later hagiographies attribute the first Bucentaur.
It is probable, however, that in remote times for ceremonies in the lagoons the Venetian DOGE was assigned simply a small gallery chosen from those comprising the naval fleet of the stato da mar.
With the passing of the centuries, and the SERENISSIMA’S increasing power, it was logical, for reasons of national prestige, that they should wish to give greater magnificence to the chief of State by reserving a special ship for him, as is reported in the PROMISSIONI (sacramental formulas spoken by the doge when he was sworn in) of DOGE Rainiero Zeno of 1252 and subsequently in those of Lorenzo Tiepolo (1268) and Giovanni Soranzo (1312) , which make repeated mention of the construction of a Bucentaurum in the Arsenal.
It was not until the printers of Nuremburg spread through Europe the grand axonometric view of Venice engraved on wood in 1500 by
Jacopo de’ Barbari that for the first time the form of a Bucintoro appears, floating in the Arsenal in the waters of the old tidal dock.
Still without its oars and decoration , except for the large wooden statue placed up on the fore quarter-deck, representing Venice in the form of Justice.
From that point onward, the Bucentaur was no longer just a name recurrent in the archives of the Ducal Chancery but here took on its own form and substance within a systematic chronology. It is likely, however that that same ship, in the period in which De’ Barbari
portrayed it, had already reached a ripe old age, if annalist Marin Sanudo could write that on 10 May 1526 “Ascension Day the serenissimo (doge) went in the new BUCINTORO to wed the sea” and adds further on that “it was a beautiful work, larger and wider than the other one” Ser Cristoforo da Canal, courageous man of the sea and attentive student of the humanistic sciences, also says that “our new Bucintoro is a marvelous work, full of majesty”.
This in fact, was that ship that was to be mentioned often in the Venetian chronicles, made famous by having transported personage
of regard, princes and sovereigns such as Henry 2 Valois who coming from Poland had docked at Murano on 14 July 1574. In effect the solemn entry into Venice of the future king of France took place the next day when accompanied by the Doge himself on the Bucentaur, he was carried down the grand Canal to Cà Foscari “On the bend of the Canal” the residence chosen by the SIGNORIA
for his Venetian visit.
The shape of this ship, more than in the paintings of Andrea Vicentino and Palma the Junger, which show it only the distance or in perspective, is most visible in an etching by Franco which shows it while on 4 may 1497 it was bearing the newly-elected Dogaressa Morosini Grimani to the Ducal Palace.
On the whole it seems to repeat the scheme of the previous one, built on two decks, with 42 oars and bedecked with the traditional towering polychromatic figure of justice in the bow.
At the beginning of the new century the Venetian Senate,despite the economic and maritime decline, already painfully felt at the rialto market decided to confront the expense necessary to build a new bucentaur: the old one was still in service but was considered “overaged” by the experts. The name of the designer remains unknow, but we know that in general he was chosen from the circle of the most qualified Marangoni (carpenters) in the Arsenal. Despite the high cost of 70,000 ducats, the new vessel was approved and praised by all when it made its first “Outing” to the LIDO with Doge Leonardo Donà. It look place on Ascension Day, 10 May 1606.
The third barge of the ducal series was also modelled along the lines of the others, and as such represented on the whole the shape
of a gallery, or better a galleas, weighed down with magnificent decorations that still felt the influence of late-Renaissance forms.
The iconography of the day shows her with her sides covered by mythical figures of sirens riding seahorses, the loggias supported
by curved dolphins amid garlands and scrollwork that intertwined and loosed to take on the form of montrous hydras reaching out to bite from the ends of the two extending bow spurs.
They where maneristic motifs, to be sure, but nonetheless they expressed the skill of the Venetian craftsmen, called upon indifferently
to decorate organ lofts, vestry choirs or church altars but also, when necessary, the sides of war galleys.
Who were the artists of these carvings?
It was once believed that most of the wooden sculptures of the 17th-century Bucentaur were the work of Alessandro Vittorio, but recent researches in the archives have revealed the names of the brothers Agostino and Marcantonio Vanini of Bassano artists almost
unknown until now, though a contemporary affirmed that they were “autors of carvings of marvelous beauty”.
After more than a century of life the 17th-century Bucentaur also reached the end of its days when in 1719 “Their Excellencies the Superintendents and patrons of the Arsenal ” decided to demolish it.
A part of the ornaments and sculptures from the aged ship under demolition, including a large statue of Mars and the two lions of
St. Mark positioned on either side of the stern, were utilized in the body of the new construction, which began taking shape on a covered slip in the Arsenal from 1722, on the design of Stefano Conti “PROTOMAGISTRO dei Marangoni” (head Master of the ships Carpenters). The Other wooden work was assigned to sculptor Antonio Corradini, who had already made a good reputation being called to work in Austria, Saxony and Bohemia, so Phrase “Antonii Coradini sculptoris Inventum” was inscribed near the bow palmette.
The Goldwork, which had to cover the entire topside and also the inside of the TIEMO, all to be done in pure goldleaf, was entrusted to a certain Zuanne D’Adamo, whose conscientious and costly work did not fail to receive the kind recognition of the magistrature responsible for the Arsenal’s affairs.
The new Bucintoro,the last of the series, debuted on Ascension Day in 1729 under the reign of DOGE Alvise Mocenigo.
The event was officially recorded with the issue of an OSELLA an accompanied by sonnets and pubblications that praised its splendour, such as that by Antonio maria Luchini entitled: la nuova regina sull’acque.
We can imagine the Bucentaur by observing the paintings of GUARDI, CANALETTO, and the other veduta painters, when under the
rhythmic rowing of its 42 oars, with its sculptures gleaming in gold, it majestically advanced along the riva degli schiavoni, to the flapping of its large silk banner in the windand the thundering artillery of its escort ships: then we can understand and justify the pride and enthusiasm of its contemporaries.
The ship halted before the island of Ste.Helen to receive homage from Olivetan monks of that convent who, following an ancient tradition, offered the Doge ” a Humble collation of chestnuts and water”. Then the “outing” was resumed and near the Lido the ship was approached by a richly decorated ducal peatone from which the Patriarch came aboard, accompanied by the entire Chapter of the Cathedral of San Pietro di Castello, carrying the basin of blessed water which he was to pour into the sea.
Level with the fort of Sant’Andrea the Bucentaur halted while the Doge, through a panel in the back of his throne, threw a gold ring into
the water, uttering the centuries-old ritual phrase: In signum veri perpetique Domini.
“Thus is described the famed ritual of this festive day, which shall be commemorated throughout the centuries as long as the World shall live”.
as Luchini closed his narration, but the future was to reserve something quite different, for the SERENISSIMA was nearing its melancholic decline.