Little information is available on the etymology and birth of this sumptuous boat, and it is difficult to establish exactly how many versions of the Bucintoro succeeded each other over the course of the centuries.
Among the suggestions as concerns the etymology of its name, the first comes from Francesco Sansovino who, on the basis of documents dating from 1293, proposed its derivation from the name of a boat built at the Arsenal : the Navilium Duecentorum Hominum. Some believe that the name comes from the trumpets and horns that were played on board. Others say it comes from the ship mentioned by Virgil in his description of the funeral rites celebrated by Aeneas to honour his father’s death : this ship was called Centaurus and, given that the Venetian vessel was exactly twice its size, this would have suggested the name Bucentaurus. Finally, it is worth mentioning a possible derivation from the combination of burchio or burcio (a flat-bottomed rowing boat typical of the lagoon) and oro (gold) because of the boat’s splendid decorations.
As for its origins, the first Bucintoro was certainly a simple boat chosen from among the military fleet of the seafaring city-state, but with the rise in power of the Venetian Republic over the centuries, there was a growing need to add more pomp to the role of the head of state, reserving a special vessel for his official appearances, as we can see from the edicts of the Doges Rainiero Zeno in 1252, of Lorenzo Tiepolo in 1268 and of Giovanni Soranzo in 1312.
Probably the first Bucintoro dated back to 1311 and was replaced by a new construction in 1526, which was made more lavish with wooden decorations. The third version, which cost 70.000 ducats, was inaugurated on Ascension Day on May 10th 1606. The fourth and last Bucintoro was completed in 1729 under Doge Alvise Mocenigo and was commemorated by the issue of an Osella and by sonnets and publications that emphasized its splendour, such as the one by Antonio Laria Luchini entitled "The New Reign over the Waters".
The Bucintoro was reserved only for very special occasions, such as for receiving important guests, or for the newly-elected Doge’s arrival at the Doge’s Palace, and for the Festa della Sensa, of course. On Ascension Day the Bucintoro travelled from St. Mark’s Square to St. Andrew’s Fort, followed by a crowded water-borne parade of boats of all kinds with the Venetian populace all crowded along the canal banks. Then the Doge would cast a gold ring into the water and pronounce the famous, centuries-old formula, "Desponsamus te mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini".
The Bucintoro’s last trip dates back to the Festa della Sensa of 1796 ; after the fall of the Venetian Republic on January 9th 1798, French soldiers reduced all the beautiful carved wood and all the gold trappings to small pieces, then took them to the island of San Giorgio Maggiore and set fire to them to retrieve the gold. The dense column of smoke that lifted over the island was soon seen by the town’s citizens, who stopped in amazement in the square facing the island, and the whole city vibrated to the words "They are burning the Bucintoro !".
This weighed heavily on the hearts of the Venetians, who had already seen the signs of how different the French occupation was from the new ideals and dreams of liberty that had fired their enthusiasm after the French Revolution, and of how glorious and venerable government had been under the flag of St. Mark. The flames took three days to destroy the friezes that decorated the symbol of the glory and power of Venice.
Reduced to a naked shell by the name of Prama Hydra, the once-splendid Bucintoro was armed with four cannons and set as a floating battery to defend the port of the Lido. It was finally demolished completely at the Arsenal in 1824.