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.
Enjoyed reading your info on gondolas as we are heading to Venice next month. It has encouraged me to check out your books. Grazie
Mary Ann, I’m glad you enjoyed this post and I hope you had a wonderful trip to Venice! –Laura
Venice is my favourite place in the world, we have visited regularly over the last 25 years. The first trip was when we were in a gondola and a boat travelled alonside with a guy singing Spanish Eyes!!!! Made us smile!!
Hi Janet, thank you for your comment and for sharing your wonderful gondola story! –Laura
I am lucky enough to spend half my life in the Veneto, with frequent visits to Venice, writing about La Serenissima. Did you know that the metal prow, or ferro, has six “teeth” which represent the sestiere or six divisions of Venice? Often on the other side you can also see 3 ornate metal spikes which represent the three main islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. On the top of this elaborate metal decoration is a shape which depicts the Doge’s bonnet.
The forcola, which holds the oar, has to be made of walnut, which is the hardest wood. Nowadays very few carvers remain. I know one, but he’s no longer strong enough to carve a forcola made from walnut, He uses cherry wood instead.
Hi Myra, thank you for sharing this! You are lucky indeed to have spent so much time in Venice! My understanding about the story of the teeth representing the sestieri of Venice is that it is relatively recent lore–probably circulating since Venice began its resurgence as a tourist destination after WWII. Still a great story, though! The forcole are wonderful and I’m so glad that a handful of carvers are still carrying on this tradition. All the best–Laura
I just devoured your book, The Gondola Maker. My husband and I were blessed enough to have won a trip to Italy in 2003. A trip of a lifetime. Your book brought back very fond memories of our gondola ride, the Grand Canal, and our trip out to Murano and Burano. I love all the history.
Hi Maxine, thank you so much! I’m thrilled to hear that you enjoyed The Gondola Maker! –Laura
I’ve not ridden in a gondola, but my visit to Venice involved lunch at a trattoria in which a gondolier and his son–dressed like his father, just in miniature–came in and met a friend for a plate of squid-ink pasta. Perhaps it was Take Your Son to Work Day in Venezia?
Grazie again Laura! This was a delightful article! I have seen the Gondola workshop pictured here! Magical! Venice is also my favorite spot in the world! I have been blessed to have visited this magical city 6 times since 1999 and will be returning in July, 2019! It is a place like no other! I am in love with all of Italia! What could be better, Florian’s for lunch, a Vivaldi concert, a visit to Burano and Murano, bellinis, dinner out on the canal, a visit to the Accadamia, a trip to the Lido and many surprises around every corner and over every bridge? Superb! Patricia Miller
So glad you enjoyed it, Patricia! –Laura
First time we went to Venice; 2003. Super tour of many side canals and the GC back round to the gondola station near Harry’s Bar, around 1 and a half hours absolutely superb (our 40th Wedding anniversary). Not used the Gondolas since (went again 2016; great tour of Venice by water as My wife needed to sit down so we got on the water bus at San Toma and went all the way round the GC., ,North back to San Marco). Walked everywhere from our hotel near San Marco vie San Polo, Canaregio, Arsenale, even negotiated Aqua Alta. last time, My wife’s 70th birthday we went earlier than usual to have dinner at Harry’s Bar; Bellini’s and superb food. after that we found a small Chinese restaurant and used it for 3 evening meals; absolutely terrific and not “ripped off”; on Calle Fabbri.
I rode in a gondola years ago. The canals, especially the Grand Canal, Venice’es Route 66, was jammed with gondolas, vaporetti, and other watercraft. It was interesting to see how the gondolier expertly navigated his boat. At night, in a hotel on the Grand Canal, my husband, daughter and I could hear the gondoliers singing romantic Italian songs for the tourists.
I was in Venice painting watercolors and settled down beside the gondola “parking lot” there thru the arches to the right of the cathedral. I t is very crowded there and I was holding my board with legs hanging over the edge above the water. I was having a lot of trouble getting the shape of the gondola and the decorative metals correct and drew and erased and drew and… Finally I was satisfied and began to paint. One of the gondoliers, an elderly gentleman, kept looking at my work from time to time. Nearly finished I was packing up. The same man came up and said to me, “I’ve watched many artists and you are the first one to get it right”. He asked if I wanted a ride? “ No money”. He took me on a marvelous tour of the canals free. I sent him a print of the painting with his boat after I returned home. What a beautiful day. I would attach the painting if I could. Sheila Parsons. [email protected]. Www. Sparsons.com
I love this story! Thank you for sharing. –Laura
Laura, I thoroughly enjoy your books, now having read four of them: The Night Portrait, The Giant, The Gondola Maker and i just finished the Painter’s Apprentice. Tomorrow, i am ordering the book about the Mona Lisa.
I haven’t been to Venice, but it has been on my list for many years. I have been to Italy and enjoyed the country and people very much. The last time I was there, I was in
Tuscany at an artists’ workshop at a villa called Spannocchia near Sienna.
You write very well, and your descriptions make visualizing the scenes very easy.
Hi Laura,I found your extract very informative.x This snippet is very interesting and I will be looking out for your books in the future, thank you
Regards Tony Wilson.
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Tony! Thank you! 🙂
As an Italian teacher I read a funny story about a young American man who wanted desperately to learn to build gondolas. In preparation before leaving for Italy he studied hard to become conversational in Italian. On arrival after locating the gondola makers guild, he discovered that Italian wasn’t spoken there but the historical Venetian dialect important to their local identity. The young man was determined and learned to speak Venetian. The article closed with his successful completion of the apprenticeship and his building traditional gondolas for the American market.