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Barchini and the Secret Corners of Venetian Summer

“Teenagers on their pimped barchini enjoying the balmy night and the fresh air while their music echoes across the spread of waterlands.”

 

 
 

Summer weekends in Venice are best spent away from the main island. This is something adopted locals come to learn rather quickly, but that born-and-raised Venetians simply know, having absorbed earlier on all there is to know about life as it’s meant to be lived in the uniquely strange part of Italy that is the Venetian lagoon.

 

Save for a handful of heavily-hit insular destinations such as Murano, Burano and Torcello, the remainder of the Venetian archipelago is largely untouched and sees only sparse swarms of visitors. And though it’s only a matter of time before the minor islands begin to receive their fair share of traffic, it’s here, in these few secluded alcoves away from the main stage, that life unfolds in its truest forms. A life that seems to hold true to a rhythm that is beautifully slow and mercilessly unchanged; that responds to rules of its own, unwritten but shared within the somewhat secluded communities that created them. A life whose rawness and profound realness seems amplified in the summer months as private scenes are set out on display for the attentive eye to see.

 

What you might see: tens of boats speeding across the water towards the southern islands, splashing and springing up at every small wave—their regular tuff, tuff, tuff setting the rhythm to which, it seems, everything else tunes in. Family in distinctively beachy attire heading towards Punta Sabbioni for a day in the sand. Groups of friends boating to Lido, Murazzi or Alberoni for an afternoon dive, a bowl of spaghetti with clams at Macondo, a sundowner and perhaps a bit of dancing barefoot on the beach. Older folks gathering under the shade of their beach shack—la capanna, a must-have for any Venetian—to gossip, snooze or play briscola. Kids kicking a soccer ball while they wait for their pizza from the cart set near the ferry stop on Sant’Erasmo. And then, later on, teenagers on their pimped barchini enjoying the balmy night and the fresh air while their music echoes across the spread of waterlands.

 

There’s a scene in Atlantide, a docu-movie by director Yuri Ancarani, in which a group of youngsters are depicted climbing and jumping off a vaporetto pier in Sant’Erasmo island as if it were a diving platform. Stripped down to their briefs, they plunge into the murky water of the lagoon for fun and freshness. Ancarani records them from a point of view that is observant without ever being moralising. We see these young natives going through life on the island and performing all the rituals of passage that seem meaningful here, while also doing everything any young person would do anywhere—dance, get high, fight, laugh, be sad, and most especially, be hungry for speed. Theirs is a life that rotates around a handful of belongings that identify them as quintessentially Venetian. One of them, perhaps the most significant, is the barchin.

 

Barchini are typical, uncovered lagoon boats that generally mount a small engine, strong and fast enough to fly across the lagoon and hop from one island to the next. Head to Bacan, the much-loved local hangout set at the southernmost tip of Sant’Erasmo Island, on a Saturday afternoon in the summer, and you’ll catch sight of a number of the boats, all lined up just a few steps from the muddy shore, many populated with young people, and many, again, shooting out top-chart pop or trap songs. In the water, they scratch elbows with bigger boats coming from Chioggia or the mainland. On the shore, the teens queue at the beach shack for a spritz or sit at the Ristorante ai Tedeschi for a plate of fritto misto alongside the few of us—myself included—who reached Bacan with the vaporetto number 13 from Venice just to observe summer in these corners of the lagoon.

 

Like Ancarani, I am fascinated by the rules and rituals of the young lagunari and their angst—by these untold and somewhat underground sides of Venice. Unlike him, I am equally fascinated by snippets of life that tell a story of beautiful sameness and universality: a round of scala under the shade of an umbrella; kids building sand castles; groups of sixty-somethings talking politics while dipping their feet in the water. All things that make Venice uniquely normal in its own right. A normality that the city needs desperately and that is worth recounting.

 

Marco Valmarana is one of the best at capturing Venice’s unique normality. He has not just an observant eye, but an acute ability to put it behind the lens and bring that piercing vision to life in his photography. Giudecca-born, but raised in Murano, Marco has recently returned to his homeland and gained a renewed interest in capturing daily life in Venice and the lagoon. 

 

Proud owner of a barchin, Marco has the ability to blend in, while also being separate from his objects of study; to be inconspicuous yet acutely aware; and to interact with his subjects regularly, getting to know them better—or perhaps see them under a different light—through his photographs. His lens is discrete and poignant: he captures moments of locals’ lives that may seem normal, banal even, but that paint a picture at once anthropological and aspirational, personal and bigger-than-life, with a keen reportage-like interest for his subjects. 

 

When asked to define himself and his work, Marco uses the word crossbred, quoting a passage from Isabella Panfido’s book Lagunario

 

“Like in an amniotic liquid, that water which is neither sea nor river, neither salted nor fresh, crossbred water, yielding from the constant combination of streams coming from sea and land; water born from father Ocean and mother Earth: the water of the Lagoon.”

 

His most recent work takes him across the lagoon and spans from stills to video. In this collection of shots, he celebrates the beauty of mundane moments such as card games, boating, rowing and swimming on the Island of Pellestrina and Sant’Erasmo.

Photography by Marco Valmarana