A Giant Violin Floats Down Venice’s Grand Canal

VENICE — In its 1,600-odd years, any number of phantasmagorical vessels have floated down Venice’s Grand Canal, often during regattas or elaborate ceremonies dedicated to the sea. On Saturday morning, a decidedly unusual head-turner took a spin: a gigantic violin, carrying a string quartet playing Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”

The craft, called “Noah’s Violin,” set sail accompanied by an escort of gondolas, and in no time a small flotilla of motorboats, water taxis and traditional flat-bottomed Venetian sandoli joined the violin as it glided from city hall, near the Rialto Bridge, to the ancient Customs House across from Piazza San Marco, about an hour’s ride.

The vessel is a faithful, large-scale replica of a real violin, made from about a dozen different kinds of wood, with nuts and bolts inside, as well as space for a motor. In addition to the artistry involved, it took a lot of tinkering and nautical expertise to make it seaworthy, its makers say.

“It was a novelty for us, too,” said Michele Pitteri, a member of the Consorzio Venezia Sviluppo, which financed the boat and built it along with Livio De Marchi, a Venetian artist, who conceived the idea during last year’s lockdown.

“The violin is a sign of Venice restarting” after the lockdown, De Marchi said Friday during an interview in his art-filled workshop off a narrow Venetian alley in the San Marco district.

De Marchi named the work “Noah’s Violin,” because like the ark, it was meant to bring a message of hope after a storm, in this case a message that promoted “art, culture and music,” he said.

It’s no coincidence that the journey down the Grand Canal was plotted to end beside the church of La Salute, Italian for health, in the Dorsoduro district, which was built as a votive offering to the Virgin Mary for deliverance from a plague that decimated the city in 1630.

Why a violin? De Marchi is a big fan of Vivaldi, who was a native of Venice and is venerated there. DeMarchi added that he always regretted not having learned to play an instrument. The gigantic simulacrum was the next best thing, he said.

The boat was steered by a helmsman dressed in a black cape and wearing a black tricorn hat like those popular in the 18th century. “I wanted him to channel the spirit of Vivaldi,” De Marchi said.

Leone Zannovello, the president of the consortium, said that the project had revived enthusiasm at the shipyard on the island of Giudecca, where it was made, after the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic. Companies and individuals who weren’t part of the group even offered to help out, he said. “It was something that united us even more,” he said. “We worked with our hearts.”

On Saturday, Zannovello and others followed the violin down the Grand Canal on sundry boats, palpably proud.

“Bravo Livio!” a voice cried out in praise of De Marchi.

“Bravi tutti!” (“Well done, everyone!”), De Marchi responded.

It was mostly smooth sailing, though De Marchi mumbled anxiously whenever the prow (the neck of the violin) veered too sharply to one side or other. But even though the musicians played standing up (barefoot for a better grip), they scarcely missed a note. At one point the score for the viola flew off the music stand and into the water, but it was quickly recovered.

“Let’s just say that between the wind and the waves, it was challenging,” said Caterina Camozzi, the viola player, after she was back on dry ground. Tiziana Gasparoni, the cellist, chimed in to say, “as a Venetian and a musician, it was the most moving experience of my life.”

As is often the case in Italy, the real hitches along with way were bureaucratic.

“We were told we needed a vehicle registration plate, but officials didn’t know how to classify it,” said Mario Bullo, a carpenter in the consortium. At first, they were issued the same plates given to rafts. “But the traffic police objected, saying that’s not a raft, it’s a violin,” he said with a shrug. In the end, city officials worked it out.

The Venice branch of the National Confederation of Artisans (CNA), which represents small business interests, helped with contacts and permits, said Roberto Paladini, the director of CNA Venice.

Financing initiatives like “Noah’s Violin” helped shine a light on artisans in a city where tourism has overtaken other activities, Paladini said, adding, “Supporting and giving visibility to artisans is the only way to keep Venice a living city.”

De Marchi is one of the artisans that the CNA features on the Venice Original website, which showcases Venetian handcrafted products, such as glass beads, blown-glass vases, colorful costume masks and leather photo albums. The e-commerce site is part of a recent project funded by J.P. Morgan.

“The artisans in the city never stopped during the lockdown. Even if they couldn’t work with their hands, they still used their brains,” said Aldo Reato, a local lawmaker who arranged for the half-dozen gondolas to accompany the violin. “There is no one better than a gondolier to represent the city’s traditions,” he said.

It’s not the first time that De Marchi, an artist known for sculpting household objects or clothing in wood, has created large-scale floating works. He began with an origami-style paper hat made of wood, in 1985, and since then he’s put several large-scale wooden objects out to sea, including a woman’s shoe, a pumpkin coach with horses, and a variety of cars, including a 1937 Jaguar, a Volkswagen Beetle and a Ferrari convertible.

People gathered over the Ponte dell’Accademia and along the paved banks of the Grand Canal to watch the floating concert that included works by Bach and Schubert. Bemused travelers took photos from vaporettos, the large public transport boats.

When the violin finally approached the church of La Salute, De Marchi confessed, “I was a little nervous that something could happen.”

A brief ceremony attended by members of the consortium and their families and friends, followed. De Marchi made a speech, and commemorated the relatives of people who had worked on the violin who had died before seeing it finished. The Rev. Florio Tessari blessed the violin and said he hoped it would “travel the world as a message of hope.” There has been interest in the violin from businesses in Italy and a museum in China, De Marchi said.

The musical entertainment continued there along with toasts and a singalong of sorts.

Zannovello, the consortium president, said he hoped the violin would serve to showcase Venetian crafts after a slow and difficult period. “I am convinced there will be a return,” he said.