Historians trace early whispers back to 1094, when Vitale Faliero, the Doge (ruler) of Venice, mentioned a Gondolum in a letter to the people. To prevent a revolt, he ‘gifted’ the people gondola-like boats and said they would help ease their commute within the town.
The first visual depiction of a gondola was brought to the fore during the 1400s by famed artists Carpaccio and Bellini in paintings that have been preserved till date. It was only from the 15th and 16th Century that gondolas were built and used to navigate Venice. During this time period, gondolas looked different from what they are today. Used primarily by the town’s elite class, gondolas were adorned with ostentatious decor. In the 16th Century, the Italian government placed a blanket ban on increasing extravagance and ordered that all private gondolas be painted black, a practice that continues till today to maintain uniformity.
By the 17th Century, towards the end of the Italian Renaissance, around 9,000 gondolas floated around the city, connecting citizens from point A to B. Their design has been optimized over the years to serve better as passenger vehicles -- or water taxis as they’re also referred to -- in a city where ocean water flows not around, but through it. Today, almost all the 400 gondolas in Venice follow a uniform design.
The Workings of a Gondola
It takes about two months to construct a gondola and only those who have mastered the art and abide by a strict code called the mariregole can build one. Each gondola is surprisingly similar to the other. They weigh about 600 kg and measure about 11m long. The boats are built to seamlessly navigate through the narrow canal system and footbridges in Venice. While it is flat-bottomed like a canoe or kayak, the resemblance ends there. Gondolas are asymmetrical, longer and narrower.
Interestingly, each gondola is made from eight different kinds of wood -- elm, mahogany, birch, oak, lime, cherry, walnut and larch. Each serves a different purpose in ensuring the boat stays afloat and can carry maximum weight. To balance the gondolier’s weight, the port side is 9 inches wider and higher than the star board, where he stands. Acting as a counterweight to the gondolier is the ferro, a metal piece that sits at the boat’s bow. It also dually helps keep the gondola level above water. The only adornment is the risso, a seahorse-shaped ornament that placed on the stern.
The final part aspect of a gondola is the forcola or the oarlock that is attached to the stern. Made of walnut, the forcola is designed with a curve and comes with several hooks where the oar can be placed, based on the gondolier’s requirement while rowing. To prevent the boat from spinning, the gondolier creates strokes in the shape of a ‘C’ or ‘J’ using the forcola as support.
The key that binds all this together is the gondolier. We know them as the gentlemen dressed in black-and-white striped shirts, black pants, quick with a smile when approached by a tourist. The gondoliers are part of an ancient, noble profession; an impenetrable community. Earlier, from the 16th Century onwards, gondoliers were born into the profession. The title was handed down through generations of men in a family. They were more than tour guides -- gondoliers were the city’s keepers of secrets and scandals.
Today, to become a gondolier, one has to go through gondola school, where they study the physics of rowing, test physical strength, learn a foreign language and familiarise themselves with the city’s history. After the training, students are required to clear a highly competitive test administered by the Ente Gondola, complete an internship and then clear a final practical exam. Only on passing all stages is one given a gondolier’s license.