Travel: The Classic Mahogany Riva Limousines Of Venice

The Classic Mahogany Riva Limousines Of Venice

By Ted Gushue
March 14, 2017

Photography by Ted Gushue

In terms of car photography we’re quite spoiled at Petrolicious. Los Angeles is a non-stop moving feast for the lens. Traveling abroad is much the same, London’s chock full of them, Paris is as well if you know where to look. Germany’s practically built on classic cars, as is most of Italy in the right spots.

But Venice? S.O.L. my friends. Venice is all about aquatic mobility.

Now I’m not talking Gondolas here. Those are reserved for cash rich tourists wielding selfie sticks and Hello Kitty backpacks. Nothing wrong with that to be honest, but not exactly what floats my metaphorical boat. Mercifully Venezia is crawling with the floating works of art that are mahogany limousines.

It would be easy to attribute these wooden masterpieces to the good people at Riva, and undoubtedly a good chunk of them have been produced at their Sarnico Shipyard on Lake Iseo, but the real common factor between all of them is a shape—not a manufacturing label.

The boats are almost universally on the older side, each one having been charmingly and lovingly looked after for decades. Much like at a major airline, the shiniest and sexiest ones are reserved for the most experienced pilots. Venetian canals are not all “grand,” meaning that an unskilled pilot could do some real damage to his boat and others if he’s not careful. I use the masculine form of pilot here largely because I didn’t see a single female behind the wheel of one.

Depending on the engine (some were custom fitted with Lamborghini V12s while others with tuned Cadillac V8s) you’re looking at north of $250,000 for a prime example. Essentially no matter how you shake it, these boats are not cheap. But they are insidiously beautiful.

The coats of varnish it must take to get that level of polish and shine out of their hulls must just be staggering. The creamy green water of Venice acts like a felt pad at Tiffany’s, exaggerating the detail of the mahogany in high definition. The interior of most of them is worthy of a Clooney honeymoon—quilted leather benches, hi-fi sound systems, small refrigerators full of Aperol Spritz ingredients. It’s about as accommodating as you’d imagine for $180/hour.

And that is the ultimate crime of these taxis. In order for the owners to recoup the massive investment and virtually non-stop upkeep they have to charge extortion-level prices to break even. Even the most budget un-concious Venetian traveler would have to look at these numbers and spit out their cocktail, and for anything over an hour I’d say they’re about right.

But for that one hour that you’ve chartered one you’re on cloud nine. You’re George and Amal. You’re Hepburn and Peck. You’re in a Slim Aarons picture book and everything is glistening.

I spent four days tracking down these beautiful creatures with my lens and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t the most enjoyable photo-assignment I’ve ever given myself.


Tags Italy/ Riva/ Venice
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Herb Hall
Herb Hall
3 years ago

Great photography, but for the record, Riva never produced any of the Venetian Taxis pictured here. Italy has a long and rich boat building heritage and Riva is just the most recognized builder, much as Chris Craft is equated with mahogany boats in the US. Some of the nicest examples of Venetian taxis are manufactured by Cantieri Serenella and I personally have an example on Tahoe built by Cantieri Cucchini.

Lin Stahmer
Lin Stahmer
3 years ago

Lovely article and beautiful, creative photos! My husband and I own a 1979 Serenella Water Taxi which was built in Murano, Italy. She was built as a tender to a yacht and for the past 10+ years, now graces Lake Tahoe where we use her nearly nightly in the summertime. She’s a great boat for Lake Tahoe – when the waves come up everyone just ducks inside and continues with the conversation and wine…all but the Captain, that is! La Prima Donna (original name) is the last of the long deck water taxis. We have visited the Serenella factory in Venice – they are said to be the oldest boat builder in Venice and claim nearly 1,000 years of boat building. Can this be? If you want to enjoy her and other beautiful wooden boats, plan on coming to Concour ‘d Elegance Aug 10-11th in Homewood on Lake Tahoe

David Allison
David Allison(@porkchopious)
4 years ago

These boats give me wood… get it, wood? Oh, never mind…. Great job!

Michiel van Hemel
Michiel van Hemel(@michielvanhemel)
4 years ago

Amazing photo’s!! I really love you’re way of photography (:
I was wondering which camera you’re using for the photo’s of Petrolicious.

Looking forward to an answer (-;

Tommaso Zeriali
Tommaso Zeriali(@t-zeriali)
4 years ago

As long as I know Riva in Sarnico have never produced a single Taxiboat, but maybe I’m wrong. Than about lamborghini and cadillac, 1 acquarama with Lambo and a tritone and an Ariston with Cadillac .

Tim Verheij
Tim Verheij
4 years ago

Amazing photo’s. We got some nice places back here in Europe. These boats are just beautiful. Here in The Netherlands we have quite a few as well (as we live under sea level…).
Would love to have more of these wooden boats on Petrolicious now and then!

4 years ago

Good Day,
Great pic!
Luv to read more in depth article TG (encouragement!). I.e. where’s the driver lounge & repair ‘yards’, R they owned individually (1 pic looks as if a’company’ owns several), who gets hired to drive, how old R the boats, speed, mi traveled each day…ad infinitium.
Thanks for what you’ve presented.
– -Chad
S. Amherst

4 years ago

Che bella Gushue ! For a detailed look at the boats of Venice dig into Wooden Boat’s archives where they dedicated two issues to the boats of Venice focusing mainly on the power boats but doing a full article on the making of those Gondolas which beyond their current Tourist status have a beautiful and influential history .. as well as a level even today of craftsmanship that is beyond reproach . e.g. Ted … put aside the prejudices and have a good look .. you’ll be amazed at what you’ll find

Ecco . Va Bene . Basta

4 years ago
Reply to  GuitarSlinger

FYI the correct term for Venice’s water taxis is Vaporetto and they come in all price ranges [ with the classic mahogany one’s obviously being the most expensive ]…. only one Riva was ever outfitted with a Lambo engine .. with others having either Cadillac or Chrysler marine V8’s .. and a few containing Ferrari marine modified V12’s … and seriously Ted .. let me introduce you to the world of wooden boats … Suffice it to say those mahogany boats don’t require half the upkeep you assume they do . Which was the whole point of using mahogany . So no Ted … the prices reflect the perceived luxury and experience .. not the cost of maintenance and upkeep