What’s more traditional than a gondola? The typical Venetian slim and long boat used to cross the canals is one of the symbols of the city and has a long and interesting story to tell.
The gondola is Venice’s most typical craft: between the 15th and 16th centuries, during the height of the Serenissima’s splendour, noblemen used to decorate their gondolas with lavish ornamentation. In an attempt to abolish the competition between noble families, the Senate passed a law decreeing that all gondolas must be standardized and painted black.
Until just a few decades ago, a small cabin called a “felze” was mounted in the middle of the gondola. It had a sliding door and windows and was even equipped with a heater in winter. It was used to protect passengers from the cold and damp and… lovers from prying eyes. Private gondolas no longer exist and the last person who owned one was art heiress Peggy Guggenheim.
Every gondola is 11 metres long, 1.40 metres wide and 0.65 metres high and made from 8 different types of wood – oak, elm, lime, larch, fir, cherry, walnut, and mahogany. The only parts in metal are the ‘ferro’ in the front and the ‘risso’ at the back. Gondolas are asymmetrical: the left side is 24cm longer than the right side. This asymmetry helps counterbalance the weight of the gondolier who stands at the back. It also compensates for the tendency of the boat to sway left as the gondolier continually rows on the right.
The logo on the gondolier’s uniform features St. Mark as the winged lion holding an open book, a symbol of peace and strength, framed by two traditional iron gondola prow ornaments.
It’s not easy to become a professional gondolier. Requirements include attending a special school, passing a public competition set by the ‘Ente Gondola’, and being apprenticed to a professional gondolier for 6 to 12 months. The final step includes passing a rigorous practical exam.
Traditionally, only men were allowed to be gondoliers. The first female gondolier – or gondoliera – was licensed in 2010. Giorgia Boscolo, the daughter of a 40-year gondolier veteran, was the first to pass the requirements and obtain a license.
Emilio Ceccato, a historic shop founded in 1902 at the foot of the Rialto Bridge, is a reference point for the official clothing and accessories worn by Venetian gondoliers.
Among the most ancient boatyards (or “squeri”), the most remarkable is perhaps that of Domenico Tramontin and Sons, established in 1884.
One of the few remaining “squeri” still operating today in Venice is located in the sestiere of Dorsoduro near San Trovaso, between the Accademia and the Zattere. The building housing the Squero San Trovaso resembles a typical mountain chalet because, traditionally, gondola builders came from the Veneto mountains of Cadore. Following its construction, the gondola is lowered into the water via a slide.