Romano Bellini’s vintage Riva collection and the yard where he restores these ‘Ferraris of the sea’ «you can be as rich as you want, but if you close the door of a Ferrari with your shoe, you’re an idiot»
Lampoon review. The history of vintage Riva boats
A girl from Monte Isola – the largest lake island in Italy located in the middle of Iseo Lake, in the province of Brescia – was betrothed against her will to a nobleman from Franciacorta. The young girl, crying on the shore of the lake, fell into the water and was saved by a fisherman from Sarnico, with whom she fell in love. Her father ordered for the man to be drowned in the lake, and she followed him into the waters. It is said that when the two of them look for each other at the bottom of the lake, the sky violently throws itself at the surface to punish the inhabitants. The wind that blows on the Iseo Lake is called the Sarneghera, because it comes from Sarnico: it occurs at most once a year, lasts about fifteen minutes and can throw moored boats onto the dock, destroying them. There is only one solution: to take them out to sea with no time to waste. In 1970, Romano Bellini was seven years old and was already helping his father in the storage of boats. When the Sarneghera arrived that year, his father threw him the keys to a Riva boat and shouted at him to take it out to sea. For the boy it was like a wedding invitation: he couldn’t wait any longer. Today, eighteen people work at Bellini Nautica, in addition to garaging, the company restores vintage Riva boats, refits modern fiberglass boats, is a Cranchi dealer for the sale of new and used boats and does repairs. In 2000, they were the first in Italy to install painting ovens for boats – of which there are now five – becoming the only official Riva boatyard painters for twenty years. In a shed in Corte Franca – just a few kilometers from the company’s headquarters in Clusane d’Iseo – is a workshop for the restoration of vintage wooden boats: almost all of them Rivas, the only ones with a commercial value that would justify their restoration. It sometimes happens that after buying and restoring a Riva boat, the Bellinis decide not to sell it. The company is the only one on the market to have in stock doubles of all vintage wooden Riva models: there are so few left in the world that it can be difficult to find the same model after selling it, if not at a much higher price.
Putting the satisfaction of the customer before the race for profit
The working culture, which in the rest of the province borders on obsession, is tempered by a spirit of contempt that puts the declaration of values before the ostentation of numbers, and the satisfaction of the customer before the race for profit. «Sometimes I’m ashamed to be part of the Nautical world, because I’ve seen some really dishonest things», Bellini says. «Unlike other industries, the customer is never an expert, so it’s easy to fool him – if you want to. Add to that the fact that the customer uses the boat on vacation, and as long as he doesn’t fight and ruin his days off, he’ll comply with what the yard tells him. People in the industry take advantage of this. This hurts me: I often see new clients who come into the office suspiciously, thinking: ‘Let’s see how this one will fool me’. What I’ve managed to convey to them is trust. When a client entrusts me with a boat and tells me ‘do everything you have to do as if it were your own’, for me that’s more gratifying than any payment». Romano Bellini uses a precise and neat speech, never stumbling over his flow of words. Only when he addresses his collaborators do some dialectal words enter the discourse: «either they come immediately or we change horses: if a blacksmith says I’m coming and ten days pass, I change blacksmith. Anyway ‘fa negót’», ‘nevermind’», he answers the phone. The Brescian accent, as it happens in these parts, is softened by the waters of the lake.
His father had opened the company at the end of the Fifties building Bellini wooden boats, like many other boatyards on the lake at the time. Wood production did not last long and with the arrival of fiberglass boats, some shipyards disappeared, others – such as Rio, Piantoni and Riva itself – converted. Today, on the lake, there are two shipyards that build fiberglass boats: Riva and Archetti di Monte Isola. Others are inland. Even Romano’s father stopped building boats to devote himself to storage, maintenance and camping in the surrounding area, run by his wife and daughter. Romano helped him with the boats as a child. «He had a short temper, we even had fights. I remember one time, I was thirteen, he reproached me in front of a client and I quit. I went on a course and for two years I worked as a lifeguard at the camping site run by my mother, even though my heart was here: I really liked the boats. Today, I never make remarks to employees in front of a customer: it’s a lesson I’ve experienced firsthand. If a client treats my employees badly, I get upset». At the age of sixteen, Romano Bellini lost his father after a long illness. Before he died, he called him to his side and told him: «don’t let it cross your mind to build boats». Romano took him literally: he restores them. After his father’s death, many competitors came forward to buy the company. Romano asked his mother to let him try for three years. To her, as a schoolteacher, the only thing that mattered was that he at least obtained the diploma of accountant. Romano went to evening classes and took over his father’s business: during the day he worked, in the evening he went to school. In all, there were three people in the company, plus a couple of helpers on Saturdays and Sundays during the peak months. More than the difficulties, he remembers the adrenaline: «I loved this business, I always had that good, healthy adrenaline inside of me that makes you pull out all the stops. I had a lot of fun and great satisfaction». That year he bought his first wooden Riva boat, the Sebino model, for 200,000 lire, which is now on display in his collection and worth 100,000 euros. «Back then there was a fiberglass boom and no one wanted wooden boats anymore. I bought the first Riva out of passion, not imagining that forty years later it would have acquired value».
Romano Bellini’s collection of vintage Riva boats
From the restoration of wooden Riva boats, with the help of former employees of the company who had retired, the collection was born. «I started to buy boats to restore them and as I went along I came across special, interesting objects that I didn’t want to sell». Today Romano Bellini’s collection of vintage Riva boats, on display at Corte Franca, is the most extensive in the world, with twenty-three boats. The oldest, dating back to 1929, is a Riva Racer used to race some editions of the Pavia-Venice competition. Then there is a Riva Lancetta from 1951, the only model in the world still in existence, which belonged to the Negroni family – producers of salami – hence the name of the Negronetto hull, built with the Klinker system, overlapping mahogany boards and riveted exposed copper nails. A Riva Lamborghini commissioned by Ferruccio Lamborghini to Carlo Riva in 1967, with two engines from the Sant’Agata Bolognese company: is a one of a kind. A Super Florida, of which two examples remain in the world. An Aquarama Lungo, built in a series of seven and of which only two remain in the world. A Riva Super Ariston and an Aquarama chosen for their palindrome serial number, respectively 101 and 1001.
«Boats are adults’ toys: which is why customers want to be pampered». As if by a stroke of fate, what for others is a toy, for Romano Bellini has been a job since he was a child. When he was young, his game was to go and bathe people on the lakefront with his father’s boats. After taking over the company, he managed to have his revenge on a world that was turning completely upside down: he turned the boats into a toy, literally. Tucked away on the two floors of the offices are one to twenty and one to ten scale models of Riva wooden boats. «It was one of my whims from a young age, when I started doing restorations with shipwrights who had worked at Riva. From one, who was particularly good, I asked for a whole series of twenty-two handmade Riva models, made from the same materials as the originals: my missing toys».
Two shipwrights work in the workshop: training lasts for years and is done directly on site. «The tricks on a Riva are endless – you have to learn them all in years of practice. You need meticulousness and maniacality. I’ve seen Rivas restored by excellent shipwrights in southern Italy, but they lacked the extra gear that the Riva requires». The mahogany must not have a single knot, and the Aquarama’s dashboard must have rigatino, i.e. the grain, not flamed mahogany. The wood must be seasoned for five years: «Some people do what I call ‘pen seasoning’: they write on the piece of paper that the wood came in four years early and only let it season one year. But the wood already moves by itself; if it’s not seasoned properly, damage happens». All chrome edge screws must have a straight cross. «Some details only I see, no customer will ever see them, it’s true: but the problem is that I do see them».
Riva shipyards history
The history of the Riva shipyards begins in 1842, when on Lake Iseo a young shipwright, Pietro Riva, restored all the fishermen’s boats destroyed by storms and the Sarneghera. His son Ernesto introduced the internal combustion engine on boats. At the end of the Great War it was Serafino Riva’s turn to start the brand and the motorboat production. Finally, it was Carlo Riva, in the 1950s, who made the name synonymous with international motorboating, especially thanks to the Aquarama series, recognized as one of the most beautiful motorboats in the world and nicknamed the ‘Ferrari of the sea’. The English magazine Motor Boat and Yachting ranked it first among the 100 best boats ever built in 2004. From Brigitte Bardot to Sophia Loren, from the Shah of Persia to Prince Rainier, in the Sixties and Seventies it was difficult for the paparazzi not to photograph one of these boats built in the Sarnico shipyards, which still exist today and occupy an area of 36,000 square meters and are protected by the Superintendence of Environmental Heritage. The cinema debut of a Riva boat was in the 1954 film Mambo. Subsequent appearances have been countless: from Il sorpasso by Dino Risi to Nikita by Luc Besson, from Men in Black to La Grande Bellezza by Paolo Sorrentino. In 1969 Riva began production in fiberglass, which initially flanked and later replaced wooden boats. Since 2000, the company has been owned by the Ferretti Group.
Money is not enough to earn a restored wooden Riva, on which twenty-five coats of clear varnish have been applied. «One day a customer came in and after buying a Riva boat asked me to take him to try it out. I put the boat in the water and he climbed up with his leather shoes on the paint and upholstery, put the gears on and accelerated with his shoes. I was shocked. As soon as we got back – he was very satisfied – I asked him to come to my office and after tearing up the contract in front of him, I told him that he hadn’t understood what a vintage Riva was and suggested that he go and buy a tractor, three kilometers further on. You can be as rich as you want, but if you close the door of a Ferrari with your shoe, you’re an idiot: it’s the same thing. He didn’t deserve that boat, which in fact has remained in my collection». If you sell and restore vintage Rivas, the client isn’t always right, for example the German who wanted to put a car radio in the dashboard of an Aquarama: «I told him I would finish the restoration but I could never drill holes in his boat as a matter of principle: my hands get stuck doing that stuff. He could have had someone else do it anyway. A year later he called me and thanked me for stopping him from doing it».
The restoring process of a wooden Riva
As with any restoration, it’s important to restore original parts where possible or replace parts with original parts, even with mechanical parts. You can’t replace a formica dashboard with a wooden one, even if the latter is ‘nicer’. A restoration is carried out by a shipwright, a mechanic, an electrician and a painter from the shipyard. There are two external professionals: an upholsterer («it’s not enough to have a white and turquoise seat: the stitching makes the difference») and a chromer, the son of a chromer from the Riva shipyards. The laminated hulls are purchased from two historic companies that used to work for Riva. No restoration is ever the same; each boat is its own chapter. «The timbers today show their years and many parts need to be changed. The most important is the hull: some clients would like to redo just the upholstery but they have a rotten hull. With the upholstery worn out, the boat will be the same, with the rotten hull you go down». Every year we restore about ten boats, working on three or four at the same time. The refitting of fiberglass boats is an- other matter, as they are done faster.
Eighty percent of the new Cranchi boats purchased go to the sea, while most of the vintage boats stay on Iseo Lake. The 2020 turnover – Covid year – was 5 million, already exceeded by June of 2021. This year, long- term rental (three to four years) was introduced. At the helm of the company today are Romano’s children, who remained to deal exclusively with restoration: Martina, marketing and communications, and Battista, managing director who has a degree from Bocconi with two periods of study abroad (London and India) and an entry into the company at its most difficult time. «Between 2008 and 2013 were tough years. Sometimes I would pick up the phone to see if the phone was working. I thought I was not suited to the job: I couldn’t sell», he recalls. Then we started to move in two directions: digital and communications. Battista Bellini created a software house with twenty or so engineers, independent from the company but to which he provides all the digital services: the website – from which ninety percent of clients come from today –, data analysis, and blockchain for the certification of restoration steps. In a non-transparent market made up of many small operators guarded of their own secrets, the Bellinis have begun to tell the story of the product. «There is little communication around Riva boats: few publications, little information. We want to tell their story».
There are only 598 Riva Aquarama boats left in the world
The danger is that the young people who receive or will receive one of these boats as an inheritance, will set it aside and not be interested in it: in order to encourage them to restore them, it is necessary to make them aware of the value of these objects. Videos on social networks – including TikTok – that explain the boats and their peculiarities, showing how they work, water tests, engine tests etc. In 2021, street artist Mr. Brainwash signed the upholstery on a vintage Aquarama. «Maybe young people won’t be our customers anytime soon, but restoring boats in the future could be just them». Battista drove his first boat at age seven, like his father: «I went with him to retrieve a client in the middle of the lake and had to drive his to get back». Today he drives an Aquarama Super called Batman, as his friends call him, from his name ‘Battista’.
On the porch of his home, Romano Bellini has a carpenter’s table filled with cutters, router bits, chisels and files, where he carves wood on winter evenings while smoking his cigar. «I just do it to relax; the results are not worthy of being called sculptures. Only my mother and sister, who love me, want one. The others I hide», he says without taking himself too seriously. «After thunderstorms I go out and look for pieces of wood that have fallen from trees in which I catch glimpses of animal shapes in order to work them. That’s why I love it when there are gales». Now that the Shipyard has a harbor, there is no need to rush the boats and take them out to sea, even when the Sarneghera is blowing.
Founded in 1960, Bellini Nautica is located in Clusane, on the shores of Lake Iseo, and boasts modern facilities and a cutting-edge shipyard. Its history, over the years, has made it a leader in the nautical sector.