Race Number Five

May 25, 1784, Maria Boscola won big–her fifth regatta win in a span of forty years.

Women had raced in regattas (boat races) since 1493. An island community like Venice, where every nonna knew how to row a boat, allowed its women to enter the races and processionals (or at least the women from the working class). The priests even blessed them. Regattas were usually held when a visiting dignitary came to town, and rowers showed off their skills or challenged others in order to keep fit for their jobs, such as did the gondoliers or workers at the Arsenale where they made boats.

Maria had first raced in 1740, winning the red pennant for first place, with her partner and friend Emma, nicknamed La Garbina. But 24 years passed before women participated in the races again. These may have been the years that Maria bore and raised her children. She also grew enough vegetables that she could bring in to the Rialto market to sell, keeping her rowing arms strong for the 25 kilometer trip each market day. In 1764 Maria raced again and won. The painting Regatta delle donne in Canal Grande by Gabriel Bella depicts this race. Is that Maria and her sister-in-law Anzola Scarpa in the boat pulling away at the front?


Just three years later the team raced to victory again, though with a blue flag for second place. A later writer referred to them as “women valued for their passionate rowing.” Another 17 years passed when no women raced in the regattas, but then came 1784 and two races. Maria and her partner Checa Boscola, on May 8 and then on May 25, 231 years ago today, won the red flag both times, beating their rivals and securing a place in history. It was the last time women raced in Venice until 1931, when the races returned briefly. The Museo Correr honors Maria Boscola with her portrait in room 47.


Nowadays, women race during the summer regattas, just as the men do, though in fewer categories. Though a number of superb athletes, such as the team of Anna Mao and Romina Ardit or the solo racer Gloria Rogliani, have surpassed Maria Boscola’s achievements, today’s racers still remember and revere this early champion.

Here are some of the women racers from last year’s regatta at Malamocco.

IMG_7701 IMG_7703

I have a full chapter about Maria Boscola in my new book, A Beautiful Woman in Venice, if you want more details, sources of information, and excerpts from the poems written about her. Details and ordering at http://kathleenanngonzalez.wix.com/beautifulwoman

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494 Years Ago!

Pirates sail the seas in rigged ships. But on the island of Murano, just north of Venice, rigged ships may be made of glass.

On May 22, 1521, Hermonia Vivarini was granted the rights to produce her navicella, a glass pitcher shaped like a sailing ship. That’s 494 years ago! To think that she overcame so many obstacles in order to create and sell her art–women were not allowed to be glass makers (though she was somehow an exception to this rule). How does one become an artist of the highest level if one is not actually allowed to practice that art in the first place?

Hermonia had the advantage of artists in her family. Her father, great uncle, and grandfather were all painters, whose work can be seen in museums and churches around Venice and around the world. But it was her great-grandfather Michele who taught her the glass arts. Hermonia probably started out by doing chores in the bottega (workshop), and she must have had quite a bit of native skill, and a lot of hours of practice as well, to master the a mano volante or “flying hand” technique needed to create this boat. Murano is known for its glass arts; Venice protected these state secrets so carefully that special laws were set up to prevent glass artists from leaving the island and taking their knowledge with them. Hermonia was surrounded by a wealth of glass art history and knowledge, which she soaked up and used to fashion her own creations.

Venice granted Hermonia her patent for ten years. But still, her navicella was widely copied. Travelers and chroniclers from the era report seeing these glass boats being sold in numerous shops. None of Hermonia’s original ships have survived. If you notice the level of intricate and fragile detail, it’s easy to see why. The Museo del Vetro on Murano does have two that they rotate on display. Hopefully you’ll get to see them; when I was there last summer, sadly both were stored away.

I couldn’t find an image that I could download and drop into this post, but if you click on this link, you’ll see Hermonia’s design:


Here’s another one, with gold accents:


I’ve included a chapter on Hermonia Vivarini and another remarkable glassmaker, Marietta Barovier, in my new book A Beautiful Woman in Venice. If you want to read more, including what she wrote in her will, please visit http://kathleenanngonzalez.wix.com/beautifulwoman.

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Is My Passion Misguided?

“This is a city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route” (p. 49).


That’s from The Passion by Jeanette Winterson, a novel set partly in Venice during the early reign of Napoleon. The book see saws between two narrators–one, Henri, cooks chickens in Napoleon’s kitchen, and the other, Villanelle, is the daughter of a Venetian boatman who makes her way by dealing cards and swindling people.

Winterson creates a lush, vibrant Venice peopled with florid characters of almost mythical proportions. I first read this book in 1996, after my first two trips to Venice. Because Villanelle confides that Venetian boatmen are born with webbed feet, I asked my gondolier friend Stefano the next year if this were true. “Web feet?” he repeated, wrinkling up his nose at me. “No, this woman is crazy.” Yet I didn’t stop loving the magical world Winterson had created.

Fast forward to 2015, and I’ve been to Venice over 20 times, read dozens of books on Venice and written three of my own. I got to thinking about The Passion again and decided to reread it. Isn’t this bit lovely?:

“Although wherever you are going is always in front of you, there is no such thing as straight ahead. No as the crow flies short cut will help you to reach the cafe just over the water. The short cuts are where the cats go, through the impossible gaps, round corners that seem to take you the opposite way. But here, in this mercurial city, it is required you do awake your faith” (p. 49).

However, I think I’ve ruined my own reading experience. I’ve read so much Venetian history that I can’t read fictional books any longer without the encyclopedia in my brain questioning everything I’m reading about. For example, Villanelle often deals cards at the gambling table in Piazzo San Marco. While it is true that Venetians loved to gamble, they did so indoors at ridotti, gambling salons usually in palaces owned by nobles. In these places, the only people allowed to deal the cards were the nobles themselves, though occasionally people gambled in their more private casini (small apartments for gatherings of friends for informal evenings or affairs). But in the 1700s gambling had gotten so out of hand and was bankrupting many noble families, with the result that the Senate closed the ridotti on November 27, 1774. This was long before the Venetian Republic fell to Napoleon in 1797, or when The Passion was set in 1804.

From what I’ve read of private lives of nobles during this time, they were mostly rather poor and scraped by on meager rations. Some people, primarily women, still ran literary salons for evening conversation, and occasionally these nights included a little light card playing, possibly for stakes, but this was a far cry from the organized gambling halls of thirty years before. I pulled out my Frederic Lane Venice: A Maritime Republic and John Julius Norwich, Paradise of Cities, plus did a little internet research, but I couldn’t find anything that described the type of gambling, luxurious lifestyles, or hedonism that Villanelle describes. Yes, that may have existed in the Venice of the mid- to late-eighteenth century, but not in 1804-5.

So then I asked myself–Why does it matter? I enjoyed reading The Passion very much, for its lovely almost poetic style, for its mythologized, magical world, and for a Venice that takes what I know and makes it something even greater. Who cares if Winterson plays loose with some facts? She’s writing fiction about made up characters, so it’s not defaming any real people (well, maybe Napoleon, though he apparently did like chicken). So I just need to learn to relax.

It would be a sad irony if, the more I learn about Venice, the more its magic is lost on me. I don’t gain anything by being pedantic, except perhaps a certain smugness, though I can’t say that’s a trait that I find endearing. I hope to continue to see Venice with stars in my eyes, to think that some of the boatmen (and women) have webbed feet, that when someone steals my heart they might actually keep it locked, beating, in a closet of a crumbling palazzo. I’d prefer to live in this world of possibilities and set aside the research side of my brain for the times when it’s more useful.

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Quattro Minuti con Casanova: San Canzian

Two stories for the price of one today!


Packed into your (slightly less than) four minutes of Casanova fun, you’ll hear some details about Casanova’s love affair with young Caterina Capretta–how he passed messages to her via a go-between, how he traveled on the traghetto to visit her at her convent, and how he attempted to stab a man he supposed to be a spy. Casanova wanted to protect Caterina’s identity and her honor and went to great lengths to do so.

This rainy day set of tales will bring more of his adventures to life, in the place where they happened.

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We Love Independent Bookstores!

Independent Bookstore Day was last Saturday, and I celebrated in a few ways!

I started the day at Recycle Books in San Jose, to pick up a book my friends had recommended. The owner, Eric, also graciously agreed to carry my new book, A Beautiful Woman in Venice. It’s so nice to be supported by my own neighborhood bookstore!

Over in Los Gatos, Village House of Books hosted authors all day to promote our work. They graciously invited me to share my books with the community. Here I am in front of the bookstore with Shelley Buck, author or East and Floating Point, and Erica Goss, Los Gatos’ Poet Laureate, with her books of poetry:


It was doubly exciting for me to be here since I had received from the printer my new book only two days before! Village House of Books also has a blog, and for the past month they’ve been accepting guest blog posts from local authors. Here is my entry, focusing on the world of self-publishing:


One of my very first jobs, while I was still in high school, was working at A Clean Well Lighted Place for Books in Cupertino, one of the loveliest SF Bay Area independent bookstores, which sadly closed as did so many other independents. I also worked for a time at the Upstart Crow. These were some of my favorite workplaces, and I feel a strong allegiance to our independent bookstores.

Thank you, bookstore owners, for continuing to provide a place where independent authors can share their work with their communities!

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The Coronation

On this date in 1597, Venice beheld a spectacle like none other. Four hundred ladies, wearing the finest fabrics, pearls, and laces that La Serenissima had to offer, accompanied Morosina Morosini Grimani on her procession to be crowned the dogaressa. She was attired in a dress of her own design, shot through with threads of gold and silver and adorned with jewels and pearls. A portrait by Andrea Vicentino shows her surrounded by the multitudes as she disembarks at the Piazzetta San Marco.


On every tour of the Doge’s Palace, visitors hear about the many illustrious doges, their military feats, their political intrigues, and their gifts to the city. But what about their first ladies? Did Venice’s women have a place at the table?

The truth is, few did. Not all doges had their wives crowned as dogaressa, perhaps because the wife had died, or war with the Turks prevented these celebrations. Then in 1645, Venice decreed that wives would no longer be allowed to have coronations like their husbands. Morosina’s was the last.

But she put on a show that could hardly be replicated. Three days of festivities touched every citizen, from the crowded boat procession down the Grand Canal, replete with floating dancing platforms, to lavish feasts, to boat races, to Morosina and her daughters tossing ducats like confetti to the populace. The new dogaressa and her husband shared their prosperity with the people.

During her reign, Morosina used her own fortune to rebuild the Church of San Sebastiano. She also founded a lace school where 130 women could learn a trade and thus bring income to their families. Morosina used her influence among the nobles to promote lace sales. For her efforts, none other than Pope Clement VIII presented Morosina with a Golden Rose in 1597, the only women to ever receive one.

Venetian women had no political voice, but Morosina was able to create a persona and a presence that gave women a public face and place.

Morosina Morosini

My new book, A Beautiful Woman in Venice, dedicates a chapter–the first chapter, in fact–to Morosina’s life. To read more or purchase a book, visit http://kathleenanngonzalez.wix.com/beautifulwoman

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Hot off the Presses!

Get your copy now!

My latest book, A Beautiful Woman in Venice, arrived today on my back porch!


That’s me sitting on 15 boxes of them.

Today is its official birthday! After roughly two years of work, 250 sources, and boatloads of help from a legion of friends, A Beautiful Woman in Venice is ready for YOU, its readers.

Dip into 28 chapters on over 35 Venetian women spanning seven centuries. From poets Veronica Franco and Gaspara Stampa, to orators like Cassandra Fedele, regatta winner Maria Boscola, and dogaressa Maria Morosini Grimani, you’ll read a wide variety of stories  about their remarkable lives. Women often changed history or saved lives, like Giustina Rossi who helped quell a rebellion to Giovanna whose painting kept the Black Death at bay, plus a myriad of nuns and laywomen who founded institutions to care for orphans, widows, and the destitute.

A whole host of writers are represented here: from Arcangela Tarabotti, Modesta Pozzo, and Lucrezia Marinella, some of the earliest proto-feminists anywhere, to Elisabetta Caminer Turra, Luisa Bergalli Gozzi, Isabella Teotochi Albrizzi, Giustina Renier Michiel, and Giustiniana Wynne, who broke boundaries for women authors and paved the way for more to come. Besides authors were composers Barbara Strozzi and Antonia Bembo. Venice has recognized some of its talented daughters, such as Rosalba Carriera, the painter, and Cencia Scarpariola, the lace maker, with plaques and streets, and of course the city has honored Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman in the world to earn a university degree.

A Beautiful Woman in Venice honors more than just those mentioned here. Read the book to discover which woman hid steaming polenta in her bosom, who was friends with Lord Byron, who painted the Barovier wedding cup, who is depicted in Titian’s famous Venus of Urbino, and who had 37 violin concertos written for her by Antonio Vivaldi.

So far the book is only available from me (not Amazon yet), so to get one you can order through the new website: http://kathleenanngonzalez.wix.com/beautifulwoman


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