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Amalfi Triumphs – Coastal Breeze exclusive

SPEAKING OF TRAVEL

Vickie Kelber 

vickieonmarco@gmail.com

The Venetian Doge from the year 1489 waits with his pages during a pause in the Historical Procession.

It was almost too close to call, but in the end, Amalfi nosed out Venezia to win the Regata Antiche Reubbliche Marinara Italiano…..and Coastal Breeze was there to cover it.

During the X to XIII centuries, the city-states of Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa, and Venice were the four great maritime republics which competed against each other for trade and power and provided significant support for the Crusades.

In the 1940’s, to commemorate the importance of these powers, an annual regatta among the four Ancient Maritime Republics was proposed. It took about six years to research the historical records and to reach accord regarding the structural design of the boats, as well as the costumes for the procession that precedes the race. The first regatta was held in Pisa in 1956. It alternates cities each year and this year it was held in Amalfi.

The crafts known as dragon boats used for this event, including the oars, must be built using the same design, material, and dimensions. Once constructed of wood, they are now made of what in Italian is known as vetroresina, fiberglass in English. The boats must weigh 760 Kgs (1680 pounds) and are 11 meters (35.2 feet) long. Each city’s boat has its own color and bow decorated with its animal symbol. Blue Amalfi has a winged horse. Genoa’s color is white and is represented by the dragon of St. George, its patron saint. Pisa is red and has an eagle, symbolic of the ancient bond between Pisa and the Roman Empire, while green Venice’s symbol is, naturally, the winged lion of St. Mark.

At one point, Pisa (red) was in the lead. Venezia (green) overtook them only to see Amalfi (blue) surge past to win.

There are eight rowers and a helmsman and the race is 2 kilometers long. While the races in Amalfi and Genoa are held on the Tyrrhenian Sea, the one in Venice is in the lagoon and Pisa’s on the Arno. It is a well known event in Italy, with the television stations broadcasting it live.

In preparation for the event, Amalfi and neighboring Atrani spent days cleaning, painting, setting out flowers, and putting up flags and banners with the city’s symbol, the white Amalfi, or Maltese cross on a bright blue background. The day before the race, each team had to be certified during a ceremony held in the small central Piazza Umberto in Atrani. The teams rowed their boats ashore, with the heads of the symbolic animals covered. One of the Venetian team members explained to me that it was because the animals were sleeping in preparation for the race.

On the eve of the race, the eagle of Pisa is covered because he is “sleeping” in preparation. PHOTOS BY VICKIE KELBER/COASTAL BREEZE NEWS

During the ceremony, each team was welcomed and, of course, there were lengthy speeches by the politicians. Then the dignitaries, officials, teams, and crowd walked through the arches of the town to the beach where the boats were inspected and the oars measured to be certain they were all exactly the same.

Three of the teams were very friendly and enjoyed that I was a giornalista dagli Stati Uniti (journalist from the United States. Whenever I approached with my camera, one would organize the others into posing. I don’t know what was going on with Pisa, though. They arrived at the ceremony significantly after the other teams and didn’t return to their boats during the certification. Rather, they abruptly left the square and we saw them walking up the road to Amalfi. They showed up early the next morning before any of the other teams, got into their boat,and rowed off to the starting location for the evening’s race. Perhaps their attitude is reflective of their win record. Venezia has been the victor 28 times in this annual event; Amalfi 9, Genoa 8, and Pisa 6.

Team Venezia on the evening before the big race.

On the day of the regatta, the big event was preceded by the Historical Procession from Atrani to Amalfi during which the coastal road was closed. If you have ever visited Amalfi, you can just imagine the traffic problems that caused…there is no alternate route.

The procession had more than 400 participants wearing historically accurate medieval costumes. Each city’s participants represented an historical event specific to their city.

All this along with standard bearers, flag twirlers, trumpets, drums, weapons, horses, and sedan chairs.

The Amalfi contingent recreated a marriage between Duke Giovanni II and a Norman noblewoman which occurred at the height of Amalfi’s power. Attended by pages, knights, maids of honor, judges, and the Byzantine and Arabian ambassadors, the wedding party made their way to Amalfi and up the dramatic steps of the 9th century cathedral to the cheers of an overwhelming crowd.

Pisa’s story in the Historical Procession is that of a young heroine who, in 1604, saved the city from a nighttime attack by the Saracens by ringing the church bells to wake the soldiers.

We have been fortunate to witness similar historical processions in various locations; the Hanseatic League Festival in St. Goar, Germany, a medieval procession and archery contest marking the opening of hunting season in Montalcino, Italy, the events leading up to the Palio in Siena. We thought this one had the most diverse, detailed, and beautiful costumes of any we have seen.

At one point, the procession had to halt and all participants and onlookers move to the side of the narrow, windy road to let an ambulance through. As I said, this is the only road from Amalfi to the hospital in Salerno.

The race was watched by thousands from the shore, along jetties, on surrounding balconies, and from the ringed roads above. Hundreds of boats of all sizes and design lined the course. Venezia took an early lead, but the home team’s winged horse forged ahead at the finish line. The response from the crowd was deafening.

And, when it was all over, we watched the bumper to bumper traffic along the coastal road from the terrace of our apartment. It went on for hours.

Just when we thought all the action and celebrating was finished, midnight fireworks, a spettacolo di fuochi pirotecnici in Italian, lit the sky above and water below the victorious hometown of Amalfi.

Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.

 


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