The gondola in Venice, Italy: a brief history, origins, evolution, and new rules for construction

gondolas The gondola as we know it today is the result of an evolution responding to the need for increased manoeuvrability and practicality. For instance, the original wooden cabin disappeared as tourism spread: the view of Venice from a gondola is so exceptional that it would be a pity to hide it from passengers. Today's issues are the wave motion and the motorboat traffic in the canals. The gondola's structure has been changing through the centuries and, even now, slight changes are being made and new (old?) rules are being introduced regarding construction.

FOCUS: Gondola, a return to the past in the new rules - Gondolas will no longer be made of plywood; only solid wood will be allowed. This is one of the new rules approved by the municipality of Venice for the public service gondolas in an attempt to stop the typically Venetian disputes about the material used in building gondolas. Two "parties" have conflicting opinions: on one side, the Felze Association, always opposed to the use of marine plywood; on the other side, Gianfranco "Crea" Vianello, perhaps the most famous carpenter in Venice, who favours plywood. "The boats made in solid wood have the same performance as plywood but a shorter life and more expensive maintenance. For this reason, gondoliers have been abandoning solid wood gondolas in recent years." But now they will have to back down. "It was a right choice to protect the gondola's tradition", the Felze Association commented. "The gondola is a world famous symbol of Venice. It cannot be modified. If we don't define rules, in the future we risk seeing gondolas made of plastic." The new rules also affect gondola fittings, trying to put an end to the rampant use of carvings, gold, and brocades that are radically changing the refined elegance of the gondola, turning it into a show boat: like a "carretto Siciliano" (Sicilian cart), as Nedis Tramonti, the "patriarch" of Venetian "squerarioli" (gondola makers) and recognised gondola master, has described it..
(MC, 3 Dec 2007)
What is the gondola?

First of all, it's a symbol of Venice, an elegant black boat that can be driven easily with a single oar by one man or one... woman? Up until now, no woman has been admitted in the official gondola service: Alexandra Hai and other female candidates have failed to pass the exam. The official reason is inexperience and lack of skill. But everybody knows that admitting a woman to this profession would break a diehard tradition. How do you drive a gondola? As you may recall from endless photographs, the gondolier stands up and turns to the direction of movement: this is called "voga alla veneziana", rowing Venetian style. The oar is supported by the characteristic "forcola", made from a single piece of walnut, like an arm folded at the elbow.

Eleven metres in length, 600 kilos in weight, made with eight different kinds of wood in 280 pieces (the only elements in metal are the "iron" of the head and the "risso" of the stern), the gondola is asymmetric: the left side is larger than the right by 24 cm. The asymmetry makes it inclined on one side. The bottom is flat, so that the gondola can navigate in shallow water, only a few cms. deep.

The iron of the gondola head, used to gain stability by counter-balancing the gondolier's weight, is a mini-map of Venice: the six strips called "pettini" (comb) represent the six "sestieri" (quarters); an additional long strip represents Giudecca Island; the double "S" bending represents the Grand Canal; on top is a stylized dogal horn and, under that, a lunette representing the Rialto bridge.

The origin of the name "gondola" is uncertain: it may come from the Latin "cymbula" (little boat) or "cuncula", diminutive of "concha" (shell). It made its first appearance in paintings in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries in works by Gentile Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio, and Giovanni Mansueti. According to documents of the Serenissima Republic (the ancient state of Venice), the gondola was born in the early 1000s. With time, the gondola acquired characteristics that distinguished it as a boat designed for the private transport of persons of a certain rank. Even today, a gondola ride isn't that cheap (see below).

The gondola was not only a means of transportation: a closed cabin ("felze") placed in its centre (not in use nowadays) offered both a shelter from bad weather and privacy for the passengers, who could enjoy reading, food, drink, conversation, or romance without being seen. The dark side is that escaped criminals and kidnappers have favoured the felze. With open cabins, Venetians cooled off on hot summer nights ("fresco") while showing off their finery.

The shipyards where gondolas are built are called "squeri" and their workers "squeraroli". Oars and forcole are built by specialists called "remeri" (from "remo", oar). Rare nowadays, the squeri were present all over the city in past centuries, building a huge number of boats and ships for commercial use. The decline of the squeri began with the fall of the Serenissima Republic, defeated by Napoleon in 1797. Later on, new technologies and new materials revolutionised the naval shipyards. In Venice, many squeri dedicated themselves to minor repairs, others became motorboat shipyards, and others closed. Some, of course survive, producing the traditional lagoon-crafts and gondolas.

Nowadays in Venice, it's common to see gondolas used for tourists (called "charterage gondolas", as they are hired), the gondolas for celebrations (weddings), the gondolas "da parada" (or "traghetto") for the quick crossings of the Grand Canal. Their hulls are all black thanks to pitch, which is used for waterproofing. The upper and inside parts may have decorations in gold and coloured velvets and carpets (usually red or yellow): these are the gondolas especially used for marriages or special occasions. By contrast, it seems tawdry and meaningless to see the plastic flower bouquets that sometimes adorn them.

Gondola ride fares

You can take a private gondola ride individually, as a couple, or in a group. There is a public fare table that varies with the chosen itinerary which gondoliers must show passengers in advance. The gondolas near San Mark's Square are said to be more expensive; so it's advisable to walk to a gondola stop farther away. Then choose one gondola and negotiate with the driver if the ride is different from the standard ride.
>> See here the published official rates!!
A gondola can safely seat up to six people. You may have singing/serenading and musical accompaniment: the things that true Venetians hate about gondoliers, since their chosen music is often from Naples. It may be cheerful, but it has nothing to do with the atmosphere of Venice!

Read more in the book: >>>> The gondolier and his gondola

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