Who is not able to picture the image of the gondolier wearing their sailor shirt and straw hat as they sing a serenade? The gondola is undoubtedly the symbol of Venice. In a city where moving around mainly happens on the water, this elegant boat fits perfectly in the narrow canals. Up to the development of motor vehicles, it was the most popular boat in Venice: around 1600 there were about 10,000 gondolas being used, and now there are only about 1,000 and 450 gondoliers operating them. Let us find out its history and main features! =
The aristocratic history of the gondola
The origin of its name comes probably from merging the words dondolare and Kondura, the name of a Greek boat. Paintings from the XV century show boats that are already very similar to gondolas although smaller and shorter than modern-day ones. It is from the 1600 that it begins to take on the look that brough it to success all around the world.
In that time, the use of gondolas increased for private use and it became the main means of transportation; as a result, its dimensions increased, the structure began to be richly decorated and was equipped with a cabin called fèlze. Aristocratic families, in fact, other than using it for necessity, also took part to social gatherings that included boat trips along the canals of the city with music in the background: that is how the tradition of boat songs came to be.
The unique features of the gondola
Despite the lean silhouette, gondolas weigh around 600 kg and can be up to 11 meters long; the way it is made however makes it possible for just one person to operate it. The gondola is operated by one up to four gondoliers standing up and with one row supported by a rowlock, called forcola, that acts as lever during use.
Among the main features of the gondola stands out its asymmetry: it is slightly slanted on the right and it moves diagonally to as to facilitate its driving with one row. The maneuvers require great ability and balance on behalf of the gondolier; the typical cries, which have become iconic in Venice, are used to warn when there is a tight spot of the canals.
The ancient art of gondola
Gondola manufacturing happens in shipyards called squeriwith the craftsmanship of artisans called squerarióli, specialized in wood ship building. El Fèlze is the association that gathers all craftsmanship jobs related to gondola manufacturing: squerarióli, fondidóri, carvers, upholsterer, remèri, blacksmith, doradori and even hatters, tailors and shoemaker that take care of the gondolier uniform. The squero, today almost completely replaced by the arsenal, is a small shipyard dedicated to wood boat production, the most famous one that is still active is the Squero of San Trovaso.
The making of a gondola takes over a year, it is in fact composed of 280 pieces and it is made with 8 different woods; every mastercarpenteruses their own techniques finetuned over many years of work dedicated to this ancient art. Once the main structure is developed, you then move on to the creation of a flat bottom that allows gondolas to navigate even the shallow seabed. After that, decorations and upholstery are applied.
The aesthetics of the gondola, between splendor and functionality
The black color of the gondola is the result of the use of the pitch to waterproof the boat. In the past, aristocratic families boasted their wealth by decorating their gondolas with precious fabrics as well as gold, so a law was issued to limit the ostentation that made gondolas similar thanks to the color black.
Among the features of the gondola it is impossible to leave out the bow comb: in addition to weighing down the bow to balance out the weight of the gondolier who is typically located aft, it helps to provide a direction for the gondola. Its particular shape stands for the most representative symbols of Venice: the Doge’s hat, the bridge of Rialto, the Giudecca, Venice’s sestieri, the Canal Grande and the three islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello. In addition to transporting hundreds of tourists every day and being the setting of romantic promises of love, the gondola is also used in sports and venetian events. The most famous is the Historical Regatta; on this occasion, the gondolas used are richly decorated so as to recall the lavish past of the Serenissima.