Ten things you never knew about gondolas

Gondola Service

Gondoliers waiting for service, Piazza San Marco. Photo: Myra Robinson

As ever more tourists invade Venice for this year’s Biennale, they should spare a thought for the gondolas; why they have a unique shape and why they are immersed in rules and traditions.

Gondolas are a symbol of Venice. They’re more interesting than you might think, and a ride in one needn’t break the bank!

  1. Gondolas are asymmetrical. If you stand in front and look down the length of the boat, you’ll see that there’s a distinct curve. This is to allow for the weight and balance of a single oarsman standing at the back, helping to make it more manoeuvrable. The boat is 11 metres long, and often has to be helped around corners by the gondolier putting his foot against the wall of a building to push. “Traffic jams” are not uncommon on some of the narrower secondary canals.
  2. What about the distinctive “accessories” on a gondola? The ornate shiny metal trim on the prow, called the ferro, always has six bars under the curved top piece. These represent the six sestiere, or districts (sixths) of Venice. (see diagram) Sometimes two smaller bars are added, representing the two islands of Murano and Burano. At the side of the gondola you can spot the forcola, an oddly shaped carved piece of wood, usually walnut because it’s very hard, used to hold the oar when rowing.
    Sestieri Gondola
  3. During the last century gondolas had become so garish that a new law was passed insisting that they must in future always be black, but you’ll still notice little personal touches like the coloured cushions, rugs or flower vases. They look like huge black curly toed Turkish slippers afloat on the canals.

  1. Gondolas used to be covered, either for shelter or for anonymity for assignations. The covering was made from a kind of oiled canvas called rasse which was exported to England in the 18th century and known as “Venetian”. It was used to bind the slats on blinds – hence Venetian blinds. (Oddly enough, you don’t often see Venetian blinds in Venice.)

  1. The squero is the traditional boatyard where gondolas are made and repaired. There’s only one left now, at San Trovaso, and it’s run by an American enthusiast who has taken on local apprentices.

  1. There are 425 licensed gondoliers. They have to pass an examination, both theory and practice, and then await acceptance, but they are sworn to silence about the details of the tests. Five years ago came the appointment of the first female gondolier in Venice, Giorgia Boscolo, aged 26, and the mother of two small children. She follows in the footsteps of her father Dante. (Gondoliers always come from family businesses.)

  1. Gondoliers wear strictly regulated clothing. In summer, they wear a white sailor’s shirt or a striped tee shirt (red or navy) and a straw boater with matching band. In the cold weather, a navy woollen reefer jacket of traditional style is worn. (It can get frosty in Venice in winter. They combat the cold by wearing balaclavas under their straw boaters, making them look rather sinister.) The gondoliers’ uniform shop is just next to the Rialto Bridge.

  1. A ride in a gondola is expensive: it currently costs up to 85 euros per half hour, but did you know that for two euros you can have a short ride in a larger version, the traghetto? These are the ferries which cross the Grand Canal at various intervals, rowed by two oarsmen with up to 12 passengers. The ride is often precarious if you’re standing and a motor boat or vaporetto goes by! It’s a good way to embrace the locals, literally.

  1. Gondoliers are famed for their singing as they ply their trade up and down the picturesque little side canals. It’s a tradition that goes back centuries. When opera first arrived in Venice, it proved extremely popular and all five theatres at the time were always full, but only after the first act, because then the tickets were sold cheaply. It was a favourite pastime of gondoliers to go to the opera not once, but many times on cheap tickets, to learn the great arias which they would then sing to each other on the canals.

  1. Gondola was the real surname of Andrea Palladio, the greatest architect of the Renaissance, who came from Padua. Andrea Gondola had his name changed by his patron to Palladio, because he thought it sounded more prestigious.

There has been a recent proposal to build modern gondolas from plastic or fibre glass. Shock, horror! I doubt if it will happen. With the success of the squero of San Trovaso (see 5 above) gondolas should continue to be built and repaired in the traditional way.

 

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