Gondolas are the symbol of Venice. They’re more interesting than you might think, and a ride in one needn’t break the bank!
1. Gondolas are always black – by decree. They look like huge black curled Turkish slippers afloat on the canals .
2. 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 maneuverable. The boat is 11 meters long, and “traffic jams ” are not uncommon on some of the secondary narrower canals.
3. Gondolas used to be covered, either for shelter or for anonymity for assignations. The covering was made from oiled canvas called rasse which was imported to England in the 18th century and known as “Venetian”. It was used to bind the slats on blinds – hence Venetian blinds.
4. The Squero is the traditional boatyard where gondolas are made. There’s only one left now, at San Trovaso, and it’s run by an American enthusiast who has taken on local apprentices.
5. 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.
6. This year saw the appointment of the first female gondolier in Venice, Giorgia Boscolo, aged 24, and the mother of two small children. She follows in the footsteps of her father Dante. (Gondoliers are from family businesses.)
7. Gondoliers wear strictly regulated uniforms. 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 woolen reefer jacket of traditional style is worn. (It can get frosty in Venice in winter.)
8. A ride in a gondola is expensive: it currently costs 60 to 85 euros per half hour, but did you know that for 50 cents you can ride in a larger version, the traghetto? These are ferries at various intervals across the Grand Canal 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!
9. Gondola was the real name of Andrea Palladio, the greatest architect of the Renaissance. His patron changed his name to Palladio thinking it sounded more prestigious.
10. There has been a proposal to build modern gondolas from plastic or fiberglass. Shock, horror! I doubt if it will happen. With the success of the squero of San Trovaso (see 4 above) gondolas should continue to be built in the traditional way.