How does La Serenissima cope with the challenges of the 21st century? During a boat ride through Venice’s canals, the rower Nena Almansi takes stock of her hometown.
Venice is back up and running at full speed again, with vaporetti, barges and countless water cabs plowing their way through its maze of canals. Those magical moments when rowers would race down the Grand Canal and glide across water so smooth, it looked like they were hovering over it, are over. The break imposed on the city during the lockdowns, when life here felt as if someone had pressed the pause button on the Venice movie that had been running in an endless loop, is long forgotten. Traffic on the Grand Canal is once again like rush-hour traffic in any major city – and no one has any regard for the narrow rowing boat carrying a young Venetian woman who is bracing herself against the waves.
This young woman is 30 year old Elena Almansi, or Nena, as she likes to be called. Her boat is a batea a coa di gambaro, which takes its name from the shape of its stern because it resembles a shrimp’s tail. Much of the imagery used in Venetian dialect is inspired by the sea. For example, if Venetians see a baby girl lying in a pram, they might exclaim Xe nata una sepoina (an octopus has been born)! And if a person is thought to be stingy, someone might ask them: Ti ga i granxi in scarsea? (do you have a crab in your pocket?).
Nena Almansi’s batea is a traditional Venetian rowing boat, the likes of which were immortalized in the work of painters like Carpaccio in the 16th century and Canaletto in the 18th century. The way these boats dance nimbly across the water stands in stark contrast to the wake left behind by the water taxis, the vaporetti and the barges. And the people navigating those vessels don’t seem to have much appreciation for the beauty of the batea. Like dogs trying to mark their territory, they push their way past Nena’s boat with only a few centimeters separating them, and disregarding the Venetian traffic rule that gives rowing boats the right of way, regardless of whether they are coming from the right or the left.
Nena Almansi is one of Venice’s best-known competitive rowers. And not just because she has won numerous regattas. For her, rowing is a way of life, not just a sport, and it keeps her in harmony with this unique city that has canals instead of streets, boats instead of cars and Istrian marble instead of concrete. Venice is a city like no other, a city that challenges us as individuals and our senses.
Nena’s parents were both competitive Venetian rowers, so it’s no surprise that she was practically born with an oar in her hands. Her father paid for his law degree by working as a gondolier, and her mother, the artist Anna Campagnari, has won practically every Venetian regatta in existence. She now designs victory flags for those regattas. The flags her father has won over the years cover an entire wall on the first floor of Nena’s childhood home: red for first place, white for second, green for third and blue for fourth place. Her mother’s prize flags are behind glass, and they’re all red.
When Nena was one, she would sleep in the bow of her mother’s Venetian rowing boat. The first time she held an oar was at the age of three; and at six years of age, she took part in her first regatta – and promptly crashed into a wall. But that didn’t stop her from rowing across the lagoon at an early age to play soccer on Isola di Campalto, a small island across from the quayside of Fondamente Nove.
Nena Almansi is one of a dwindling number of Venetians who choose to remain in their city. She has not joined the exodus of residents who leave every year because they can no longer stand the ever-ballooning mass tourism that Venetian mayors have been pushing for the last thirty years. This tunnel vision has robbed Venice of its vital infrastructure: hospitals have closed, islands have been sold and schools have been turned into hotels. Of Nena’s 29 classmates, only three still live in Venice. The rest have left the city.
But Nena isn’t one to give up. And she started doing her part to counteract mass tourism 15 years ago, when she and her Australian friend Jane Caporal founded Row Venice, a non-profit organization that teaches people how to row the Venetian way: standing up.
During their courses with Nena, her students learn more than just the basics of rowing (dip the oar vertically, row, and pull the oar back up horizontally). They learn that the lagoon is not a waterway but a biotope worth protecting – an ecosystem created by humans that is now threatened by those same humans. Like many other Venetians, Nena believes the lagoon should be viewed as an organism that must be cared for, healed and nourished. And not as a place to be subjugated, used and transformed so that the city can make even more money. The number of tourists that go to Venice is staggering: until the lockdowns in 2020, up to 33 million people visited the city every year.
One question that Nena’s students often ask her is why the people of Venice elect mayors who don’t represent the city’s interests. She explains that during Fascism, the city was forcibly married to the mainland, leaving it with no administration of its own. At the time, 200'000 people lived in Venice, and only 40 000 lived on the mainland. Today, the ratio is almost reversed: just over 49'000 people live in Venice; if you include all of the other islanders, a total of around 77 000 people live on the water. And 178'000 now live on the mainland.
To make sure her students aren’t overwhelmed before they even get started, Nena takes them to the relatively quiet Rio della Madonna dell’Orto, a wide canal in Cannaregio. If her students see a motor boat and get nervous, Nena reassures them, saying, “Not your problem,” and reminds them that rowing boats have the right of way in Venice. It’s one of the last privileges they have in this city that was once dominated by these boats.
Beginner students stand at the front of the boat and row. And although they can’t actually do anything wrong except fall into the water, the real skill lies in steering the boat, which is done from the stern. While Nena steers, she also teaches her students about the lagoon. For example, that it is a shallow water area about 15 kilometers wide and 50 kilometers long. And that it is a transition zone between the sea and the land, consisting of salt marshes, sandbars, channels and shoals.
Until the beginning of the 19th century, the lagoon had an average depth of 40 centimeters. Today, it is one-and-a half to two meters deep – a far cry from the shallow water marine environment that it once was. Dredging for the flood barrier started in 2001. Today, anyone learning to row with Nena will notice how strong the swell is. But the real issue is that the lagoon and the MOSE flood barrier are not the solution that Venice needs – they are actually part of the problem. Each time the flood barrier is closed, the lagoon is separated from the open sea. And when it’s opened, the difference in height between the sea and the lagoon unleashes a strong current, which results in further erosion of the lagoon floor.
Nena Almansi and her colleagues at Row Venice, on the other hand, represent the perfect symbiosis between tradition and innovation in Venice. Almansi is the missing link between Canaletto and the climate crisis: she is living proof that Venice was a sustainable city long before that word even existed. She demonstrates that far from lagging behind the present, Venice is ahead of the times. And for her, the fact that the city’s enemies haven’t succeeded in destroying it is proof of Venice’s resilience.