The Gondola – Past and Present.  Nothing is more quintessentially Venetian than the gondola – the traditional flat-bottomed and rudderless rowing boat; well suited to the shallow conditions of the lagoon and the city’s canal system. Despite many theories, the origin of the word “gondola” has never been satisfactorily established.

 


 

The craft has evolved over the last thousand years into the sleek and elegant boat seen today.

The boat is propelled by a gondolier, using a rowing oar not fastened to the hull, in a sculling manner and which also acts as a rudder. Its modern unique asymmetric design, allows just a single standing oarsman to navigate and manoeuvre safely and quickly in the busy and often narrow canal system.  An experienced oarsman can judge the depth of the water ahead, by how the waves move on the surface of the water.

The gondolier stands on the stern facing the bow and rows with a forward stroke, followed by a compensating backward stroke. The latter is necessary, because the asymmetric design means the boat naturally veers to the right. The oar rests in an elaborately carved wooden rest or forcola; shaped to project from the side of the craft so as to allow the slight drag of each return stroke, to pull the bow back to its forward course. The vessel’s flat bottom allows it to be “drifted” sideways when required.

For centuries, the gondola was a major means of transportation and the most common watercraft within Venice. Between the 16th and the 18th C, there were estimated to be approximately ten thousand gondolas of various types in the city. By 1878, this reduced to about 4000 and today there are approximately 400 boats and a similar number of licensed gondoliers in Venice.

In the past, gondoliers mainly worked for rich Venetian families. As they knew many secrets of the aristocracy, the gondoliers were treated with respect and were high up on the social scale.

In modern times, they have a limited role in public transport in the city, serving as small ferries or traghetti (over the Grand Canal and operated by two oarsmen). Until 2017, there were seven traghetti crossing points, now reduced to three.

Today, their primary role is to carry tourists on rides at fixed rates and these are required by regulation to be painted black for public use.

Not all gondolas are painted black however. Various types of gondola boats are owned privately and also used in special regattas (rowing races). They may be seen in their natural wood finish or decorated in club, associations or town hall colours. However, unlike the licensed public boats, they are stripped of the typical decoration, seats and pillows.  Sports boats may be stripped of everything, except wood floor tiles or paioli, to stand on.

 

 

History and Usage.

Whatever its origins, the gondola evolved gradually; the nature of the Venetian lagoon, demanded a shallow drafted vessel from the earliest times. The historical gondola was quite different from its modern evolution.

The gondola has existed in Venice since the 11th C – the first accepted documentary evidence appeared in 1094, during the rule of Doge Vitale Falier, in which he refers to a “gondalum”.  Its origin may derive from a boat termed “scaula”; in use in the early 900’s.

Compared to a modern boat, early designs of gondolas were much smaller, broader and showed a symmetric profile that sat lower in the water; with a much lower prow and stern fitted with simple metal blades.

By the 16th C, gondola makers started to change the shape of their boats – a longer and thinner hull, whose extremities were raised out of the water; a higher “ferro” and usually rowed by two oarsmen. Interestingly, the manner of rowing appeared similar to that of today.

Gondolas often acquired a small cabin or felze, to protect the passengers from the weather or for privacy. Its windows could be closed with curtains and some had louvered shutters; the original “Venetian blinds”.

At the peak of the Venetian Republic, gondolas could be finished in a variety of colours and highly decorated. A sumptuary law of Venice passed in 1562, required that gondolas should be painted black; as is the case today for public use. (A sumptuary law is one which limits consumption, in this case in relation to the degree of extravagance and competitive excess; by wealthy Venetians at that time). They were also limited to three flourishes in metal – a multi-pronged prow or “ferro”, a curly rear tail or “rico” and two sea-horses. 

During the 17th and 18th C, it is estimated that there were eight to ten thousand gondolas. The many wonderful paintings of Canaletto (1697-1765), show the typical gondola design of that period; together with the wide variety of other boats of varying size. 

The modern gondola was developed only in the 19th C by the boat-builder Tramontin, whose heirs still run the Tramontin boatyard (Squero Tramontin) in the Dorsoduro district. His transformational improvements included an asymmetric lengthened design, a wider bottom at the stern, perfect balance, manoeuvrability and durability. The gondolier stands on a more elevated stern, ensuring greater frontal visibility.

By 1878, the number of gondolas had reduced to about 4000.

Up to the early part of the early 20th C, gondolas were still often fitted with a small cabin or felze. In response to increasing tourism and probable complaints about restrictive views, it was replaced for a few decades by a kind of vestigial summer awning or tendalin.  These can be seen on gondolas as late as the mid-1950s, as in the film Summertime (1955).

The construction of the gondola continued to evolve until the mid-20th century, when the city government prohibited any further modifications.

Today there are only around four hundred in active service; with virtually all of them used for hire by tourists. The smaller number that are in private ownership (possibly about a hundred), are either hired out to Venetians for weddings or used for racing or regattas. 

 

 

Current gondola design

Today’s gondola design is up to 10.87 m long and 1.6 m wide and 0.64 high at its mid-point; with a mass of 350 kg.  One side is 0.24 m longer, giving its asymmetric shape. Essentially, they are more “banana shaped” – raised at the bow and stern, so that only about 60% of the boat is submerged in the water.

They are made of 280 hand-made pieces, using eight types of wood (lime, oak, mahogany, walnut, cherry, fir, larch and elm). No laminates or plywood are used. The eight types of wood each have different qualities and perform different functions. The process takes months of work and the current cost of a gondola can be up to Eu50,000, dependent on specification.

They are still worked by hand using tradition boat-building tools; the axe, saw, plane and hammer. The lengths of wood are soaked in water and curved using fire; which best preserves the timbers structural qualities. The client can choose a range of options, including fittings in steel or brass; the design of the carved upper surfaces and the steel or aluminium ferri, at the bow and stern.

The oar or rèmo made from beech is held in an open oarlock or fórcola, made from walnut. The forcola is of a complicated shape, allowing up to eight positions of the oar for slow forward rowing, powerful forward rowing, turning, slowing down, rowing backwards and stopping. The multi-pronged ornament on the front of the boat is called the fèrro (meaning iron) and can be made from stainless steel or aluminium. It serves not only as a decoration, but as a counterweight for the gondolier standing near the stern.

Every detail of the gondola has its own symbolism. The iron prow-head of the gondola, called fero da prorà, is needed to balance the weight of the gondolier at the stern and has an “Ƨ” shape symbolic of the twists in the Grand Canal. Under the main blade there is a kind of comb with six teeth or prongs  (rebbi) pointing forward standing for the six districts or sestieri of Venice. A kind of tooth that juts out backwards toward the center of the gondola, symbolizes the island of Giudecca. The curved top signifies the Doge’s cap. The semi-circular break between the curved top and the six teeth is said to represent the Rialto Bridge. Sometimes three friezes can be seen in-between the six prongs, indicating the three main islands of the city: Murano, Burano and Torcello.

The gondola is also one of the vessels typically used in both ceremonial and competitive regattas; rowing races held amongst gondoliers using the technique of “Voga alla Veneta” (rowing style for keel-less, rudder-less, flat bottomed boats).

During their heyday as a means of public transport, teams of four men would share ownership of a gondola – three oarsmen (gondoliers) and a fourth person, responsible for the booking and administration of the gondola.

However, as the gondolas became more of a tourist attraction than a mode of public transport, all but one of these cooperatives and their offices have closed. The category is now protected by the Institution for the Protection and Conservation of Gondolas and Gondoliers; located in the historical center of Venice.

 

How does one become a gondolier?

The profession of gondolier is controlled by its own guild, which issues a limited number of licenses; granted after periods of training and examination.

To become a gondolier, trainees must have some knowledge of “Voga alla Veneta” rowing and handling a gondola. After passing a rowing and swimming test, the students are accepted into the ‘Arte del Gondoliere’ school. Course-work covers Venetian rowing, history, local geography and foreign language skills and lasts 12 -18 months. Finally, they undergo a practical rowing test, on a busy working day.

Passing the final examination gives the candidate the title of substitute or sostituto gondoliere.

Successful candidates must register with the local Chamber of Commerce, open a partita I.V.A. (a small business tax id) and pay all required fees. At this point, the person is considered a substitute gondolier or sostituto. They must work up to one year in one of the remaining gondola stations or traghetti di parada; where people are transported from one side to the other, across the Grand Canal.

Substitutes can then row a gondola on behalf of a gondolier. The revenue generated by the substitute is split with the gondolier.

The license is linked to a specific gondola station or traghetto, which implies that a gondolier always starts from the same location. The license can be transferred from father to son or daughter, but the same requirements apply to become a gondolier.

No gondolier, substitute or fully licensed, can have more than one license or authorization. A few gondoliers have however a second deluxe gondola, used to transport dignitaries or for weddings.

There are two ways to own a license: either buy one from a gondolier intending to retire, or wait until the town hall issues a few more. Permits are only handed out every few years and only in small numbers. In theory it is not possible to sell a city license; however, it is the most common way to obtain one; despite the fact it may cost several hundred thousand euros!

Anyone born outside Venice is most unlikely to have the chance of becoming a gondolier. In 2018, sixty people passed the preliminary exam, however only five did not have a gondolier as a relative.

Gondoliers traditionally dress in a blue or red striped top, red neckerchief, wide-brimmed straw hat and dark trousers. It is reported that a gondolier can earn up to around 140,000 euros per year.

In August 2010, Giorgia Boscolo became Venice’s first fully licensed female gondolier.

In June 2017, Alex Hai was the first openly transgender person to be a gondola operator in Venice. He continues to work as a private gondola operator for hotels and individual clients.

 

Costs of Hire

Try Googling for “cost of a Venetian gondola ride” and you may well be confused about the costs per person or for taking up to six in a boat!  Also, costs may vary with regard to public or private services and booking in advance!  If you dislike negotiating, you can leave the chore to your hotel concierge, although a hefty surcharge may be added.

The city of Venice sets official rates for gondola rides, which may be expected to start at Eu80 for 40 minutes. Additional 20-minute increments are Eu40. After 7 pm, the base rate climbs to Eu100, with Eu50 for an additional 20 minutes. Up to six people can share a gondola; however, for safety the gondolier the reserves the right to control the overall weight and distribution of clients.

This doesn’t mean you’ll actually pay 80 euros, or that you’ll get a 40-minute ride. Depending on demand, gondoliers may regard the official rates as a polite fiction. Special services, such as singing, can boost the fare even more. This means you should negotiate both the rate and the length of the ride, before you get into the boat. Otherwise, your gondola ride may be memorable for reasons that have nothing to do with sightseeing!

Rides starting from busier gondola stations such as the San Marco basin area, may feel like a procession of boats, rather spoiling the occasion – it may be worthwhile taking time to seek out quieter parts of the city. Also, don’t forget that on busy waterways with vaporetti and water taxis; the ride may be choppy and rather daunting to some! Quieter canals may give a rather more “romantic impression” to the ride!

Outside of Venice

In 2000, the first authentic gondola was brought to Stillwater, Minnesota, USA; by John Kirschbaum.

Currently there are about a half dozen cities in the United States where gondolas are operated as tourist attractions, including New Orleans, the Charles River in Boston, New York’s Central Park, and the Providence River in Rhode Island; as well as several in California. The annual U.S. Gondola Nationals competitions have been held since 2011, and feature American Gondoliers competing in sprints and slalom races.

Post-Script

Mark Twain visited Venice in the summer of 1867. He dedicated much of The Innocents Abroad, chapter 23, to describing the curiosity of urban life with gondolas and gondoliers.

The first act of Gilbert and Sullivan’s two-act comic operetta “The Gondoliers” is set in Venice, and its two protagonists (as well as its men’s chorus) are of the eponymous profession, even though the political irony that makes up the core of the piece has much more to do with British society than with Venice.

Shelley in 1818, wrote “Dark, silent and sinister, the gondola – for all its romantic allure – is an equivocal vessel”. “Moths of which coffins might have been chrysalis”.

Marie Ohanesian Nardin’s, semi-autobiographical story ‘Beneath the Lion’s Wings’, is a captivating and romantic novel; an ode to Venice and to the trade of gondoliers. She quotes – “there is nothing like seeing Venice from the angle only a gondola can provide.”

 

Please click the link, to see my other Blog Posts; HERE

 

The Gondola – Past and Present    The Gondola – Past and Present    The Gondola – Past and Present

The Gondola – Past and Present    The Gondola – Past and Present    The Gondola – Past and Present

The Gondola – Past and Present    The Gondola – Past and Present    The Gondola – Past and Present

The Gondola – Past and Present    The Gondola – Past and Present    The Gondola – Past and Present

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