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Carlo Riva: The Engineer Who Created an Icon

Ten years ago, my wife and I were cruising along the western shore of Lake Como, not far from the Villa d’Este, looking for George Clooney’s waterfront estate. She was hoping to see Clooney; I wanted to see his Riva. As it happened, we both struck out. But as the day wore on I was able to satisfy my Riva quota; there are more than a few Rivas running around on Lake Como. Actually, they’ve been built nearby in the little town of Sarnico, on Lake Iseo, since 1842.

The great-grandson of the founder, Carlo Riva took over the family business in 1954. He said he built his first boat, “a little rowboat,” when he was 17. Trained as an engineer, Riva ended up building some of the most recognized and glamorous boats in the world. He launched the first Riva Aquarama in 1962, creating an icon of Italian style and design, and he kept building them, all in wood, until 1996.

During those years, Rivas became the preferred boat of the rich and famous. Liz Taylor and Richard Burton had one, so did Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, plus Brigitte Bardot, Sean Connery, Sophia Loren, Anita Ekberg and King Hussein of Jordan, among many others. But Rivas were much more than celebrations of la dolce vita. As boats, they created their own niche, just as a Bertram 31, a Grand Banks 42, or a Hinckley Picnic Boat have all become legends in their own. A Riva is a Riva.

Riva Yachts are now part of the Ferretti Group; they’re still beautiful, but they’re not the same as Carlo Riva’s original Aquarama. Times change. But tastes don’t, and that’s why the Aquarama lives on as a boating legend.

Last week, Carlo Riva died at the age of 95 in Sarnico. He’s pictured above with his family, on a Riva, of course, in 2012. The engineer who started with a little rowboat managed to create a lasting triumph of Italian design, beauty and elegance.


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