Whoever thinks of Venice will automatically think of gondolas. Once the city’s main means of public transport, these graceful vessels are now used almost exclusively by tourists for “authentic experiences”. However, they still form a picturesque sight and are, of course, much more beautiful than the enormous cruise ships that occasionally litter the city’s canals.
The first gondolas were constructed around the year 1100, although some people think that they may have already existed in the 7th century. Old paintings, however, show that they only really became popular in the 15th century. They were only used by the wealthier citizens and can therefore be considered as a kind of water carriage.
The gondolas were specifically designed to navigate the shallow waters of the city’s canals.
The first versions had 12 oars.
Later, they became smaller and a cabin, called felze in Venetian, was added. This hut was mainly intended to protect the rich people from prying eyes. Its existence led to the necessity of raising the Venetian bridges. It is from this period on that the gondolas were painted black.
After gondolas began to be decorated ever more exuberantly, a decree banning this was passed in 1609. From then on, they were only allowed to have a curled tail, a pair of seahorses and the typical prow.
Each gondola consists of exactly the same 280 parts. The left side (port side) is longer than the right. This is necessary to be able to row straight, since there is only a rower on one side and the boat would otherwise veer to the right. To make rowing easier, the gondolier will always make sure there are more, or heavier, passengers on the starboard side than on the other side. Except on the Grand Canal, gondolas in Venice always travel on the left side.
One of the most striking features of the gondola is the ferro da prua. This is the S-shaped crest on the prow that keeps the weight of the gondola balanced. The S-shape refers to the course of the Grand Canal, while the six teeth of the crest refer to the sestieri. The tooth projecting inward symbolizes the island of Giudecca. The arch above the last tooth is the Rialto Bridge and the highest tooth is the Doge’s Chapel.
Gondolas are made of eight different types of wood. Each type has a different role, depending on its hardness and flexibility. Construction starts with the selection of the axles, after which one must wait a year for them to dry. The axles are followed by the sides and then the rest of the boat is built. After the gondola has been made watertight, six layers of paint are needed, before the final decorations can be added.
A workshop where gondolas, but also other small boats like mascarete, sandoli and caorline are made or repaired is called squero. These workshops are also made of wood and are open on the waterfront. To facilitate mooring and unmooring, the bank is sloping.
There are only five places left where traditional gondolas are made. The most famous of these is the Squero di San Trovaso.
An important role is also reserved for the so-called remer, who manufactures the oars and the so-called forcole, which are made of walnut. These are the holders in which the oars are placed and must have a precisely defined shape in order to allow the oars to make the correct movement.
The gondolier is, of course, emblematic of the city. In order to practice this profession, one must attend a special school. Apart from rowing, one has to learn the history of the city and some foreign languages. There are currently around 600 gondoliers, until recently almost exclusively men. Gondoliers wear a striped shirt, black trousers and a straw hat. This uniform, by the way, is recent and came to be the norm after a 1958 film by Dino Risi, “Venezia, la Lune a Tu”.
Nowadays, Venice‘s famous gondolas are only used by tourists, and the public transport function has been taken over by the vaporettos. There are fixed prices for gondola rides, but these are not always adhered to, so bargaining is often necessary. In the evening, it is more expensive.
A 30-minute tour costs 80 euro. No more than 6 people are allowed on the boat. At night, there is a surcharge of 20 Euros. These prices are supposed to be indicated.
There are also some gondolas that serve more as public transport. In spots where there are no bridges, they are used for crossing the Grand Canal. Unlike normal gondolas, these have two oarsmen. The price is 2,50 Euro per person. The timetable is from 07.00 to 19.00.