The gondola is synonymous with Venice and its ancient churches, great museums, grand palazzos, and intricate canals. It conjures up images of romantic couples nestled on the elaborately decorated couches in shinny black gondolas decorated with shimmering brass while echoes of singing gondoliers reverberate off buildings along narrow canals and under bridges.
Gondolas have been used in Venice for as far back as the 11th century. Early mentions go back as far as 1094. It is estimated that there were eight to ten thousand gondolas on the canals of Venice during the 17th and 18th centuries. That number is now estimated to be more like four hundred in active service today, with virtually all of them used for hire by tourists. Some gondolas are used for private ownership that are either hired out to Venetians for weddings or used for racing. As famous as the gondola is now, in the times of the Republic of Venice it was by far not the only means of transportation; on the map of Venice created by Jacopo de’ Barbari in 1500, only a fraction of the boats are gondolas, the majority of boats are batellas, caorlinas, galleys, and other boats. Now, only a handful of batellas survive, and caorlinas are used for racing only.
Over the years gondolas have changed quite a lot since those shown in the paintings of Canaletto and others. Those gondolas show a much lower prow, a higher “ferro”, and usually two rowers. The banana-shaped modern gondola was developed only in the 19th century by the boat-builder Tramontin, whose heirs still run the Tramontin boatyard in the same building for 600 years. There on the same dirt floor that their ancestors walked on and using many of the same tools and jigs, the family works on to build and repair gondolas in the traditional way.
The construction of the gondola continued to evolve until the mid-20th century when the city government prohibited any further modifications. In addition to the builders of the gondola, there are various guilds dedicated to building various ornaments and the forcola or oarlock, each of which is handcrafted to suit the rower.
Back in the 1500s, there were as many as 10,000 gondolas of all types in Venice. Then in 1878 an estimated 4000 and now approximately 400.
Mark Twain described the gondola in his book Innocents Abroad in this way, “The Venetian gondola is as free and graceful, in its gliding movement, as a serpent. It is twenty or thirty feet long, and is narrow and deep, like a canoe; its sharp bow and stern sweep upward from the water like the horns of a crescent with the abruptness of the curve slightly modified.”
The bow is ornamented with a steel comb with a battle-ax attachment which threatens to cut passing boats in two occasionally, but never does. The gondola is painted black because in the zenith of Venetian magnificence the gondolas became too gorgeous altogether, and the Senate decreed that all such display must cease, and a solemn, unembellished black be substituted. If the truth were known, it would doubtless appear that rich plebeians grew too prominent in their affectation of a patrician show on the Grand Canal and required a wholesome snubbing. Reverence for the hallowed past and its traditions keeps the dismal fashion in force now that the compulsion exists no longer. So let it remain. It is the color of mourning. Venice mourns. The stern of the boat is decked over and the gondolier stands there. He uses a single oar–a long blade, of course, for he stands nearly erect. A wooden peg, a foot and a half high, with two slight crooks or curves in one side of it and one in the other, projects above the starboard gunwale. Against that peg the gondolier takes a purchase with his oar, changing it at intervals to the other side of the peg or dropping it into another of the crooks, as the steering of the craft may demand–and how in the world he can back and fill, shoot straight ahead, or flirt suddenly around a corner, and make the oar stay in those insignificant notches, is a problem to me and a never diminishing matter of interest. I am afraid I study the gondolier’s marvelous skill more than I do the sculptured palaces we glide among. He cuts a corner so closely, now and then, or misses another gondola by such an imperceptible hair-breadth that I feel myself “scooching,” as the children say, just as one does when a buggy wheel grazes his elbow. But he makes all his calculations with the nicest precision and goes darting in and out among a Broadway confusion of busy craft with the easy confidence of the educated hackman. He never makes a mistake.”
I can attest to the skill of the Venetian gondoliers having spent many hours watching them maneuver through the maze of boat traffic darting in and out of smaller canals. I was particularly impressed at how they managed to get out of the way of speeding ambulance and fire boats.
The romantic image of the straw hatted gondolier in striped shirt rowing through crowed Venetian canals is only one role of the historic gondola. There are racing gondolas, smaller personal gondola, and the symbol of Venice since the 11th century, the Gondola da Nolo. Today’s gondola is up to 11 m long and 1.6 m wide, with a mass of 350 kg. They are made of 280 hand-made pieces using eight types of wood (lime, oak, mahogany, walnut, cherry, fir, larch, and elm. They are always shiny black and are slightly curved. Decidedly less romantic, certainly the most utilitarian gondola is the traghetto. Traghetto or Gondola Parada is translated to ferry in English. It is a kind of bare-bones workboat used to ferry people across the canals in Venice. No glistening black lacquer, no highly polished brass decoration or lavish furniture. In fact, most of the 10 passengers stand in the traghetto while two gondoliers, one in front and one in the rear row it across. There used to be some thirty separate family owned traghettos. Now there are just six or seven. Generally, the traghetti stations have been owned by the same family for generations.
In my own experience, mainly on the Traghetto Santa Sofia at the Pescheria, Venice’s historic fish market, just down from the Rialto Bridge on the Grand Canal, I have found that the locals all stand during the crossing, tourists sit. It takes a little experience to balance standing in a traghetto. The crossing is quick and costs two Euros. Locals get a lower price of about 75 cents. I took the traghetto on average of twice a day. The traghettos run only during daylight hours. You can get a better idea of what it is like to take the traghetto by watching the YouTube video Traghetto S. Sofia.
There are numerous signs for the traghettos. Usually secured to the side of a building with an arrow pointing in the right direction. I think of the traghetto as an absolute necessity in Venice without the traghetto getting from side of the canal is a long process. It is a throwback to ancient times, a fun ride and something unique to Venice.