"The ship is itself an ornament" - How the "Bucintoro" was gutted

"The ship is itself an ornament; therefore one may not say that it is overloaded with ornaments, and only a mass of gilded carvings that are otherwise useless. In reality it is a monstrance, in order to show the people that their leaders are indeed wonderful. Nevertheless, we know this: the people, who are fond of decorating their hats, also want to see their betters in splendour and dressed up. This grandiose ship is quite an item of inventory and shows what the Venetians were and imagined themselves to be" (Goethe, "Italian Journey")

Sebastian Vrancx: "The Triumph of Morosina Morosini-Grimani on the Bucentaur in St. Mark's Basin" (1597)

The Peace of Campo Fiorino forced Napoleon to withdraw from Venice again after half a year of occupation - the city had surrendered to him in May 1797. Suddenly, it was catch as catch can in the Serenissima for the French and on 9 January 1799, soldiers invaded the old Arsenale, Venice's old naval base, to gut the "Bucintoro", the famous gilded state galley of the Doges.

The current "Bucintoro" was the fourth vessel of this name was built in 1727 and had been used primarily to celebrate the Doge's annual marriage to the sea. On Ascension Day, the rougly 40 metres long vessel was rowed from the Lido through the canals and with the words "Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini" ("We wed thee, sea, in the sign of the true and everlasting Lord"), the Doge dropped a ring into the water to symbolise the inseparable union of Venice at least with the Adriatic, a ceremony documented since the earl 14th century.

"Il ritorno del Bucintoro nel Molo il giorno dell'Ascensione" (The Return of the Bucentaur to the Molo on Ascension Day, 1730) by Canaletto (1697–1768).

Whatever real worth the gilded hull and superstructure of "Bucintoro" might have yielded in terms of bullion, in can't have been much, even though the French soldiers took three days to scrap of the last bit of Dutch metal from the ship. "Bucintoro's" hull later was equipped with a few cannons to guard the harbour entrance and was finally scapped in 1828.

A foundation tries to rebuilt "Bucintoro" since 2008, a 20 million Euro project, that is not undertaken in a hurry though since rather no visible progress has been made. The head of Fondazione Bucintoro, one Colonel Giorgio Paterno, took care to write to French president Sarkozy for a contribution to make up for Napoleon's 1798 "vandalism".

And more on: