When the President of the United States travels today, he boards a Boeing 747 nearly as big as the White House itself, and considerably sleeker. Crammed to the ailerons with enough electronic gear to start a small TV network, the massive, flying, presidential palace roars off into the wild, blue yonder with a grace and heroic power befitting its importance in the political scheme of things. During the Renaissance, the Doge of Venice had a lesser degree of political power (except within his great city of course), but no less grand and glorious mode of transportation. It was called the Bucentaur, and rather than gliding over the air streams it glided over the Grand Canal of his aquatic municipality with much the same grace and heroic power for its time as Air Force One.
The magnificent barge was meant primarily for ceremony and entertaining. Some 98 feet long and 26 feet wide with a lower deck sprouting 46 oars pulled by 138 rowers, and a grandly decorated upper deck for the Doge and his court, it's doubtful its low-slung beauty would have made it very seaworthy had it sailed far into the Adriatic. But in its own domain, from its overhanging throne room over the stern to the seated statue of Justice mounted on the double-prowed bow, its princely presence was second to none. With its red and gold banners streaming in the wind over its Venetian red canopy, its very existence was supremely appropriate to a city whose streets were paved with water.
Venice was founded in the sixth century upon a group of marshy islands in a shallow lagoon at the northern head of the Adriatic Sea as a refuge from invading Germanic tribes. At first, little more than a handful of tiny fishing villages, in the eighth century they came together and elected a leader called the Doge. Thanks to its geographic location and nearby port, by 1300, Venice was one of the most powerful city-states in all of Europe, growing rich as a trade crossroads between the Turkish East and the fragmented fiefdoms of the West. With this wealth came great art and artists, including painters such as Antonello de Messina, Andrea Mantegna, Giorgione, Titian, and the Bellini brothers (Giovanni and Gentile). Their father, Jacopo Bellini, (also a painter) was said to have been employed in decorating the interior of the Bucentaur.