I remembered reading somewhere that the British Library had been quietly scanning in the pages of rare books in its collection and posting them on the net. I was stuck for an hour at the SFO airport a couple days ago, waiting for a plane, so I fired up the notebook, latched onto a wireless network, and poked around the British Library. I stumbled into a section called Treasures in Full, containing miracles like an ultra-high-res scan of the Magna Carta and manuscripts from Chaucer. Down the page there was an intriguing link called Renaissance Festival Books: “253 books about festivals and ceremonies in Europe from 1475 to 1700”.
Since they knew how to throw some hellacious parties, I figured maybe there would be something in there about the Venetians. I banged a few times on their search engine. Up came 11 books about Venice ... mostly texts in Italian, with sparse illustrations … fancy initial caps … flourishes, but nothing graphically dramatic.
Except, that is, for a book titled “Visit to Venice of Ernst August, Duke of Braunschweig-Lüneburg”, published in 1685. Sounds like a colossal snore, but oh baby.
Deep inside were a series of unbelievably detailed, incredibly large engravings of the Historic Regatta (Regatta Storica). I’ve seen Guardi, Canaletto and other paintings and illustrations of the Regatta before, but these pictures completely reset my vision of what the pageant was all about. Honestly, it looks like sci-fi.
The first illustration is a panoramic fold-out that takes in the Canal Grande from Ca’ Foscari all the way to the end of the Riva degli Schiavoni. The page is at least 20 feet long, and depicts all the major architecture along the Canalazzo along with dozens, perhaps hundreds of boats. Be warned, the file is huge. Thankfully, the British Library’s servers are zippy and the image appears via broadband in seconds. The link to the file is here. (Remember, Windows Internet Explorer usually resizes/shrinks super high-res images in the browser window. To see the full hi-res pix, double click on the image until you see a little orange square in the corner, then click on the orange square. Zoom. Big.)
Below are a couple reduced, tiny fragments from the massive panoramic ... though you really have to see the full image to appreciate it.
After the pan are a series of engravings of details of individual regatta barges (called peotas) that seem to have sailed out of a baroque psilocybin dream/nightmare.
To see the full-up image of the sea-monster-peota shown above, click here.
There are 9 other killer engravings, all linked below.
The peota di Venere
The peota di Marte
The peota di Glauco
The peota di Diana
The peota di Giunone
The peota di Pallade
The boat -- a Margherota -- that carried Ernst August
15 other peote that took part in the regatta
A later illustration by Andrea Zucchi of a peota from the regatta of 1716 (somehow bound into the book.
This year, by the way, the annual Historic Regatta takes place on Sunday, September 5th along the Canal Grande. It’s a wonderful spectacle, but it looks downright folksy next to the old-school pageants of the Serenissima.