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.
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