Earlier this week I made a special trip to the Mariner’s Museum in Newport News, Virginia to see a Venetian gondola that the museum conserves in its collection.
This gondola dates from the mid-1800s, making it one of the oldest surviving Venetian gondolas today. (Unfortunately the humid environment of the Venetian canals and lagoon mean that wooden boats are essentially ephemeral, even ones of the highest order of craftsmanship.) This gondola may have been constructed around 1850 in the now-defunct Casal boatyard.
An American in Venice
During a stay in Venice in 1890, the American painter Thomas Moran hired this gondola to ferry himself, his wife, and children around the city. At the time, people said that the boat had been owned or used by the British poet Robert Browning. Whether or not this connection added to the allure of the craft for Moran, the celebrated landscape painter became enamored with the idea of returning home with this remarkable “souvenir.” He purchased the gondola from its gondolier and arranged for it to be shipped to New York.
Later Moran wrote, “The gondola was so beautiful and graceful, and so ancient and fine in its carvings, brasses and fittings that we fell in love with it, and decided to have it sent to our Long Island house.” Moran was later seen steering on the boat on Hook Pond in East Hampton while enjoying picnic lunches with his family.
In 1926 Moran’s daughter donated the gondola to the East Hampton Library, who displayed it on their front lawn for a few decades, before realizing that it required more assiduous conservation. The gondola was donated to the Mariner’s Museum in 1950. It also made a brief visit to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC during the exhibition Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals, in 2011.
Bringing the Boat to Life
The boat measures about 37 feet long, and includes two carved wooden chairs upholstered in leather, as well as brass sea horses. It originally had a separate passenger compartment or felze, and I would like to know what happened to it as it is an integral part of the boat’s original appearance. (Passenger compartments disappeared only in the twentieth century when tourist traffic in Venice made it more convenient and desirable to travel in convertible boats.)
In 1998, the assistant curator for small craft at the museum, Chandi Singer, accompanied this boat back to Venice to be restored. The Tramontin family, who runs one of the last operating squeri (historic boatyards) in Venice, brought the boat back to its original beauty over the course of a two-month restoration. The eldest Tramontin brothers apprenticed at the Casal boatyard where this boat may have been made. How great is that?
In addition to the gondola, the Mariner’s Museum contains many other fascinating objects related to maritime history. A colorful display of historic figureheads caught my attention, as well as a dramatically lit exhibition of wooden model boats that includes an intricately carved Venetian galleass of the type that would have been constructed in the Venetian state shipyard, the Arsenale, in the seventeenth century.
I am happy to see this important gondola so beautifully conserved. Thanks to its care in the museum, it is likely to be preserved for future generations to appreciate.
For more on the history of the Venetian gondola, read this post or watch the video lesson I produced for TED-Ed.