22 February 2021
By Tim Koch
Tim Koch on a strangely obscure piece of women’s rowing history.
Famously, the word ‘regatta’ comes from the word in the Italian Venetian dialect meaning a fight or contest. The image of various craft being rowed ‘Venetian Style’ in regattas on the city’s famous Grand Canal is a familiar one but most of us have probably assumed that historically such contests were all-male affairs. I have only recently found out that, during a remarkable period between 1493 and 1784, this was not the case.
Here, I have drawn almost exclusively on a 2015 paper by Professor Gigliola Gori of the University of Urbino titled “Sporting Events Organised in Venice: Male Boating and the Amazing Case of Women’s Rowing Contests”. First published in the February 2015 edition of The International Journal of the History of Sport, it was later reproduced in Global Perspectives on Sport and Physical Cultures, edited by Hofmann, Gems and Smith (2017). Gori may sometimes use the word ‘regatta’ to mean a single race.
The Republic of Venice existed from the late 7th century until the end of the 18th century. At times, its jurisdiction extended into Dalmatia, further into northern Italy and across many Mediterranean and Aegean islands, including Cyprus and Crete. For centuries, Venice dominated trade on the Mediterranean through skillful diplomacy and a mighty navy. Encouraging boat racing was one method of ensuring a supply of strong men skilled in aquatics. The earliest reference to a ‘modern’ Venetian regatta is from 1441, but they existed long before then. Although regattas soon became very popular with all classes of society, the organisers of such events were those in power and in 1631 the ruling council decreed that only the state could conduct and judge regattas and that private societies would need special permission to hold them. Thus, women’s regattas could not have happened without the approval of the ruling elite: the powerful families, the church and the state.
On Venetian women’s rowing contests, Professor Gori states that:
It is not clear when women started to participate in boat races but Nicolò Zeno (fourteenth century) tells of a female regatta held in Venice which ran between the churches of San Antonio and San Geremia in 1064…
Although (1064) was probably a unique occurrence, there was a regatta exclusively for female teams that was held in 1493… The regatta marked the visit of several noblewomen to the city of Venice, and the event was meant to be a show of chivalrous recognition of the fair sex… Chroniclers report that the race was run by 12 four-oared boats, each consisting of a female crew.
The ‘race’ was almost certainly a contest in name only since victory was awarded to the team composed of a mother, a sister-in-law and two daughters, mirroring exactly the make-up of the visiting aristocratic family.
However, Gori holds that the 1493 race was the start of ‘frequent’ female contests in regatta programmes and occasionally all-female regattas over the next 300 years. Just looking at the 16th century for examples, she gives brief details of some of the most notable women’s contests held in the years 1502, 1520, 1525, 1530, 1562, 1569 and 1574.
By the 18th century, women’s regattas were so popular in Venice that not only painters but also poets and musicians were inspired. A poem in praise of the winners of a 1767 women’s regatta talks of gazing at the women ‘Who have mastered / The arts of that beautiful / Gymnasium on the waters / Where they show that they can do / Manly feats of strength and skill…’
It is probable, Gori says, that many female regattas have not been recorded because written sources are rare and those that do exist may fail to clarify the sex of the rowers. Further, the names of both male and female rowers were not often kept – though there are at least two notable women that we do know about.
The Venetian artist Giovanni Grevembroch (1731 – 1807) wrote an account of Giulia Fottanella from Mestre, on the Venetian mainland, who won three women’s regattas. However, Maria Boscolo from Chioggia, south of Venice, is more famous, probably because her portrait was painted and is today housed in the Museo Correr on Saint Mark’s Square.
Gori writes that:
Many scholars have speculated that the famous painting by Gabriel Bella titles ‘Women’s Regatta in the Grand Canal’… might represent one of the two female races in 1784 in which Maria [and her sister, Checa, were] placed first.
Boscolo’s final win in 1784 was possibly the last regatta in which women took part before the fall of the Republic of Venice to Napoleon and thence to Austria in 1797. It became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.
Apart from regattas, Gori can find no evidence of Venetian women participating in other sports and games. However, those who rowed for sport were in a special position as they had learned their skills through necessity.
…Giovanni Grevembroch writes that the female rowers were poor people living on the outlying islands and villages near Venice. They were trained to row across the lagoon and along the canals by their husbands … (to) transport and sell food in the city… So it is not unlikely that they occasionally rowed on behalf of their favourite faction. Despite being very proud of their victories… these women were perhaps celebrated to ridiculous heights… they gained the people’s respect and a reputation that lasted for life. That was exactly the case of Maria Bosscolo who, although of humble origins, became a star and was portrayed in her portrait as if she were a true noblewoman.
In her conclusions, Professor Gori suggests that, as women’s regattas were often put on for foreign visitors, such events also served ‘the greater purposes of the state’ because they gave the guests the impression that, as Venetian women were so athletic, how much more impressive must be their men?
(The) humble women who competed in the regatta races – from the first in 1493 to the last in 1784 – (had) a triple purpose to their efforts since they performed for the state, for the prize and for themselves… Their sporting activities were supported by those in power and the general citizenry, including the men in their families. Because of this, these women gave birth to an early model of female emancipation. Women were able to overcome the usual gender barriers while training and racing for their own pleasure and amusement.
This piece reflects the extraordinarily researched sort of revelation that we have come to expect from Tim Koch. While it is rooted in a very different “rowing” tradition, it shines a new light on the ways in which women have taken, and then lost, a highly visible place in the annals of athletic endeavor. Bravo, Mr Koch (but please don’t tell us that one of those portraits is now available for a minimum bid of 50,000 Euros … )! We look forward to seeing more of your insights into the early appearances of oars in the hands of women.