‘It’s easy to notice, especially in Italy, that there is a patron saint of pretty much everything. In times of doubt you can take your pick of any number of nearly divine beings, from Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, to Radegunde, who guards against scabs. In Florence, the saint you might want to become most familiar with is San Cristoforo, whose purview includes sailors, boatmen, toothaches, fruit dealers, among many others.
In one version of the story, San Cristoforo, a giant who wanted to help people, being unable to pray or repent, found his calling in helping regular-sized humans cross a river, one of whom happened to be Jesus. Whatever his origins, San Cristoforo has been embraced by those whose lives revolve around water. Cristoforo’s relevance to Florence comes from the city’s founding on the banks of the Arno and the many advantages the river provided.
Inevitably, times change, and, with the exception of the flood in the last century, the Arno has become less vital to daily life. For many, it registers as just a dot in the pointillism of the city’s charm. Societa’ Canottieri Firenze, however, would beg to differ. The 700-member rowing club is celebrating 125 years of maintaining the city’s ancestral respect and dedication to the Arno.
Formed in 1886, the Canottieri is one of the oldest sports organizations in the city. From its original location on the left bank, along the Lungarno Guicciardini, to its current location below the Uffizi, where a 100-meter corridor once home to the horses of the guards of the Medici now houses the club’s boats, the organization has persevered.
It survived through both world wars and the devastating flood of 1966. Indeed, the reappearance of the society’s boats on the Arno, rowing past the apocalyptic scene after the German bombs ravaged the bridges and riverbanks, was among the first signs of the return to daily life. In the devastating 1966 flood, the boathouse was completely submerged for 24 hours, and each of the 350 members worked to dig out the mud that had buried the facilities.
In its 100 years of active competition, the club has won a multitude of national and international races, as its awe-inspiring collection of trophies and gold cups attests. Although the club has among its members exceptional athletes, others represent a wide range of skill levels. Members participate not only in rowing, dragon boating (see TF 48 and 110) and canoeing but also running and soccer. To complete the cross training and conditioning, the club offers yoga, stretching, massage and personal training.
In addition to the honors the Canottieri brings to Florence with its competitive achievements, perhaps of greater value is the daily discipline and rigor the club provides for young Florentines. Rowing the Arno combines tradition, the meditative peace of the river, and focus on the precise rhythms of the sport. For members of the club, being on the Arno celebrates athleticism, nature, discipline, and most of all, a love of the river.
To mark the 125th anniversary of the society’s beginning and celebrate its long and important connection with the city, the clubhouse is open to the public until July 15 for an exhibition by Tuscan artist Giuseppe Gavazzi. The exhibition, Musiche di legni in riva d’arno, features 11 wooden open-air sculptures evoking music. Also on display is a recent terracotta work, Canottieri al Ponte Vecchio, which the artist has donated to the club. Those interested can stop by the clubhouse by day to admire the sculptures and get a unique view of Florence-from the river up.
For more information on the exhibition and the Canottieri Firenze and its history, see www.canottierifirenze.it.