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
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.