Venice and the Voga

Since Venice’s emergence around the 8th century AD, the interrelationship of city, sea, and lagoon has been integral to the Republic’s history. This relationship is most famously celebrated still today by the ceremony of Lo Sposalizio del Mare – the Marriage to the Sea.

Canaletto, Return of the Bucintoro

Canaletto, Return of the Bucintoro to the Molo on Ascension Day

Venetian maritime might depended—literally—on the speed and agility of the galea—the sea galley. Propelled chiefly by oars, they were utilized both in trade and war, as a transport ship of the muda  (powered with speed necessary to outrun the pirates along the Dalmatian coast), or as war galleys, rowed into battle in faraway places such as Lepanto.

While her great galleys were central to Venice’s dominance of the Adriatic, there was always a flotilla of smaller work craft that sustained day to day life…all propelled by the voga.

Venice batele, 1900s

The voga alla veneta rowing style is used to navigate the iconic gondola, along with every other version of keel-less, rudder-less, flat-bottomed Venetian craft. You’ll  note that in historical representations of Venice such as the Barbari map, and even paintings by Canaletto or Guardi,  gondolas are a minority of the craft depicted, while the majority are versatile and multi-purpose boats, once numbering over fifty different types, these craft were the true work horses of the venetian economy and social life.

These barche tipiche today include

  • high-capacity caorline (also sails vela al terzo, traditionally used for fishing and transport, today rowed and raced by six vogatori)
  • the handy, family sandolo, rom 5 to 8 metres in length, with one to four rowers
  • the pupparino (like the gondola, asymmetrical in construction)
  • the ceremonial desdotona, a graceful, 18-oar boat
  • the regata-only gondolino with 2 oars
  • the lithe mascareta, also with 2 oars
  • various sandolo-style boats…

…including the rarest of them all, the batela, in the coda di gambero or buranela style, the types we use for our lessons.

Row Venice batellina

Row Your Venetian Boat

Venetian gondola forcola (oarlock)The most distinctive feature of Venetian rowing is its style, standing and facing forward, enabled by an oarlock of unique design: known as the forcola, it has evolved into an exquisitely carved piece of walnut or cherry wood with an open cradle which supports the oar for the main stroke. The forcola style will vary somewhat both from boat to boat, and depending on where it’s positioned.

While there are many strokes at the disposal of an accomplished vogatore, it is the shape of the forcola that facilitates their execution, allowing the poppiere to maneuver the craft through complex navigational situations that the intricate lattice work of Venetian waterways presents.