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Viareggio's sails: a history told in miniature

The Viareggio yards now producing yachts acclaimed throughout the world can be regarded as the direct successors of the glorious sail tradition that took root in the town in the early nineteenth century. In 1819, Maria Luisa de Bourbon, duchess of Lucca, commissioned the construction of a large shipyard on the Burlamacca canal. This led to the development of many others, some of which still exist, and generations of master carpenters, caulkers, owners, skippers and crew, all renowned for their great skill.

Proof of this can be seen in the Viareggio Maritime Museum, opened a few years ago in the old Fish Market, thanks to the work of Lorenzo Viani and the writings of Mario Tobino, describing the launch of the great sail ships at the Darsena Toscana and their maritime adventures in calm seas and raging storms, some ending in tragedy. But an evocative picture of Viareggio’s sail history is also provided by the vast range of models made by Alberto Santocchi. For over fifty years he has devoted his energies to miniature reproductions of the various types of sail craft launched at local yards. Santocchi, a member of the Viareggio Model Ship association, lives in Forte dei Marmi, and has completed over 150 models, all self-built in a variety of scales from 1:50 to 1:100. They are almost all traditional sail workboats, and only a few carry guns.

“I’ve never been very keen on ships with cannons,” says the model builder. Engine-powered craft also feature infrequently in his work. The rare exceptions include the motorsailer Alfredo Padre from 1925 and the support ship Artiglio 1°, involved in the legendary achievements of the divers from Viareggio working in the 1920s and 30s for Sorima, for the Maritime Recovery Service of Genoa. As well as an impressive photo archive, Santocchi’s sources include Raffaello Martinelli’s book Types of yachts, steam vessels and boats 1892-1928 (Pezzini Editore) and the plans made by Alvaro Matteucci, a doctor from Florence and passionate modelmaker who translated memories of Italian shipbuilding into graphic form. Matteucci’s work, now made available by the Naval Modelmakers’ Association of Bologna, reproduce fifty-year-old plans, themselves blueprints by Fortunato Celli, known as Natino, one of the most famous Viareggio shipbuilders, alongside Bargellini, the Codecasas, Benettis and Raffaellis.

After learning his trade at the Raffaella yard, Natino went into business on his own in 1885. He gained his shipbuilding certificate at La Spezia, playing his part in reviving local marine construction. His sail craft featured a bow that was higher than the stern, and the slimmer, rounded stern area, which normally had a squarer outline. The writer Mario Tobino praised their elegance, comparing them to Greek amphorae. One typical example of shipbuilding in Versilia is the navicello, a coaster around twenty metres long with an unmistakeable rig - a vertical mainmast set slightly forward, with mainsail, gaff-topsail and a short foremast directly behind the bows, leaning towards the bowsprit and mounting a square sail. These craft - not be confused with the boats of the same name that sailed the rivers of Tuscany - were long used for carrying marble from the Apuan Alps. When loading they were simply drawn up onto the beaches of Avenza, Marina di Massa and Forte dei Marmi, then special pontoons were built. Another commonly-used craft was the tartana, a classic Mediterranean vessel with only one mast and lateen sail. The same type of craft would often be equipped with different types of rigging, according to the owner-captain’s preference. The tartana hull could be rigged as a pinco a gabbiole, with two masts for the mainsail and a mainmast with two square sails.

In the same way a 25-metre craft with rounded stern and clipper bow could, if requested, be rigged as a bovo, with two lateen sails and a small mizzen mast, a schooner with gabbiole (square sails on the upper section of the foremast) or a cutter a gabbiole with mizzen mast (square sail and mainsail on the mainmast and lateen sail on the smaller mast).

As the yard expanded, it became possible to build types of craft that carry more cargo, like the brigantine and brigantine-schooner, or brigoletta. An example of the brigoletta is the Ebe, a former training ship for navy helmsman, launched under the name of San Giorgio and now preserved at the Museum of Science and Technology in Milan. The great ladies of the Viareggio sail tradition, weighing 800 to 1,500 tonnes, were the large three-masters like the barque Endeavour and the barquentine, better known as the barcobestia, an Italian term deriving from the sound of the English name for these craft, the best bark, with square sails on the foremast and mainsails on the other masts.

The most famous barcobestia was Dedalo, launched by the Celli yard in 1898 and skippered by Beppe Tomei from Ceccotto, a member of a famous local family of owner-captains. In 1940 Dedalo was converted into a motorsailer, and she was still active in the late 1950s under the name Sant’Antonio. In fact, auxiliary engines were beginning to be mounted on Viareggio-built craft in the 1920s, despite the opposition of many who regarded this as marking the end of an era - these traditions were finally swept away by the events of World War 2, when the Viareggio fleet was almost totally wiped out.

Roberto Riu

(Yacht Digest, n. 153/2009)

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