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Bucintoro (Bucentaur)

The Doge's State Barge

Francesco Guardi's  Bucintoro on Ascension Day

The Doge's state barge, the Bucintoro (often anglicized to Bucentaur) was an essential ingredient of Venice's pagentry and myth. It played a starring role in the annual La Sensa, celebrating Venice's marriage to the sea, but was also used whenever the Republic wanted to impress a VIP.

The origin of the name has been lost in time. Some say it refers to the ship Centaurus in the Aeniad but was named Bicentauris because it was twice as big and grand. Renaissance Venetian historian Francesco Sansovino said according to documents from 1293, it was based on a grand medieval ship from the Arsenale called the Navilium Duecentorum Hominum ('Of Two Hundred Naval Men', perhaps because it took that many men to service it).

Historians believe there were four major Bucintoros built in the city's history—in 1311, 1526, 1606 and 1727, each one a double decker floating palace, each more lavish than its predeccesor. The final version was a 115 ft long and 26 ft high, requiring a crew of 168 oarsmen and 40 sailors, covered with flame-coloured velvet fittings and gilded statues, including a figurehead of Justice with her scales and sword, with the doge's throne in the stern and seating for 90 notables in between under a massive canopy with 48 windows.

The Bucintoro was grand (besides Francesco Guardi, Canaletto and Luca Carlevarijs painted it) but not very seaworthy; one Turkish sultan, who thought the whole marriage of the sea thing quite ridiculous, predicted that it wouldn’t be long before the marriage was actually consummated.

Napoleon ordered his troops to burn it in 1798, as a symbol of the old regime and to collect the melted gold; accounts say it took 400 mules to haul it away.

The Rebuilding of the Bucintoro

Invaded by so many million tourists, 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.

Colonel Giorgio Paterno, head of Fondazione Bucintoro

In 2008, the Fondazione Bucintoro begun work on the €20 million replica of the ornate 1727 version of the barge in the Bucintoro the Third Millennium project, using traditional ship building methods, although it has been bedevilled by lack of funds and materials. To make up for Napoleon's burning of the barge, France in May 2014 made a major contribution by sending over the first of 600 oak trees from the forest de Double in the Dordogne just in time for La Sensa.

French producers Alain Depardieu and Patrick Brunie are filming the project's progress as part of a documentary. Italian businessman and sailor Alberto Peruzzo is investing in the project, with the aim of eventually making it into a floating museum honouring Venice's glorious history.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: PD Art