In the heyday of the Venetian Republic, some ten thousand gondolas transported dignitaries, merchants, and goods through the crowded canals and lagoons of the water-logged city. Today, only about four hundred gondole glide through the waterways of Venice. Across the city and the outlying islands, a handful of boatyards or squeri still make and repair gondolas using modern techniques and power tools, but each year, fewer and fewer authentic gondolas are turned out by hand. A small group of specialized master boat builders working in historic boatyards now holds the craft—literally—in its hands.
Centuries in the Making
Although the gondola has become the symbol of Venice, the city once teemed with diverse types of handmade wooden boats, from utilitarian rafts to canal ferries to the famous Venetian war galleys–which the government bragged its craftsmen could rig in a single day–and the doge’s own impossibly ornate, gilded barge, the Bucintoro. That’s not surprising when you realize that Venetians have long relied on boats for transporting everything.
The Venetian gondola began as a much simpler contraption than the elaborate boats now synonymous with Venice. To my knowledge no complete Venetian gondola made prior to the mid-1800s survives intact; only a handful of iron prows from the Renaissance era have endured the humid Venetian climate that destroys anything made of wood, even of the highest order of craftsmanship.
The earliest documentary evidence of the Venetian gondola dates to 1094, when the word gondolum is used in a letter from the Doge, Vitale Falier, to the people of Loreo. We must wait another four hundred years for visual evidence of the distinctive boat. The earliest depictions of the Venetian gondola let us imagine what these early boats might have looked like. We can envision these dark, elegant boats with the help of a series of beautiful wall paintings executed by Vittore Carpaccio in the 1490s for the Church of Saint Ursula, now preserved in the Accademia in Venice. In this cycle of paintings, gondoliers appear to maneuver their boats using the oarlock, a manner of rowing that is not too different than that of today.
The Allure of the Gondola
Not only Venetians but also foreign visitors must have been impressed by these distinctive boats, since printmakers such as the Swiss artist Joseph Heinz the Younger and the Dutch author and statesman Nicolaes Witsens disseminated views of the gondola in woodcut prints and engravings that made their way across Europe. A woodcut by the Swiss artist Jost Amman portrays a gondola with a fore and aft oarlock, rowed by two oarsmen, in “Grand Procession of the Doge of Venice,” published in Frankfurt in 1597. A sketchy carving on an altarpiece erected by gondola makers in 1628 inside the Church of San Trovaso depicts the familiar arc of the gondola with its spiky iron prow decorations, the ferri, on either end and a covered passenger compartment, or felze.
More elaborate oarlocks, upholstery, carving, and the peculiar asymmetrical form of modern gondolas, which allows for more effective rowing, all developed from the 1700s onward. Since the late 1800s, gondola makers have made the left side of the boat wider than the right, giving the correct counterbalance to the force created by a single gondolier and allowing him to row through crowded spaces only from the right side, and without lifting his oar from the water.
The Rules of Gondola-Making
From the beginning, members of the boat-making guilds abided by a set of strict social codes as well as an impressive body of written rules called the mariregole. These rules governed integral aspects of the boat makers’ lives: everything from regulating their apprentices and salaries to dowering their daughters, ministering to their sick, providing for their retired, and burying their dead. Above all, it was expected that a son would follow in his father’s footsteps, and pass the torch of the gondola-building traditions of the family squero to the next generation.
Much like a modern-day taxi system, many gondolas were leased to boatmen who serviced the ferry stations, or traghetti, that dotted the canals. Even though Venetian boatmen once numbered in the tens of thousands, because they were members of the lower class they remain relatively silent in historical documents except for random incidental accounts, many of which involve infractions that took place in gondolas, including cursing, gambling, extorting passengers, or worse.
Keeping Up Appearances
Wealthy Venetians owned one or more of their own private gondolas, and they employed their own boatmen as part of their servant staff to maintain their boats, dock them in private boathouses, and remain at their masters’ disposal to ferry them around the city. Eventually, the gondola became a status symbol much like an expensive car, with custom fittings, elaborately carved and sometimes gilded ornamentation, and seasonal fabrics such as silk and velvet. Even after 1562, when authorities banned what was seen as sinfully ostentatious ornamentation and decreed that all but ceremonial gondolas be painted black, some wealthy Venetians chose to pay the fines, a small price to keep up appearances.