A Gondola on Sherbrooke Street

 They gave the city the name Venetia as if to say Veni etiam – Come again!

Francesco Sansovino
Citta Noblisissima et Singolare – 1581

I have a confession to make: in the many times I’ve been to Venice I have never taken a ride in a gondola. Nope, not even the traghetti that Venetians use (at €1 a ride) to cross from one side of the Canale Grande to the other.  Oh I’ve watched the gondolas a million times and even taken the odd picture of a Gondolieri or two – just as a cultural observer of course.  But to actually fork out the money – the last price I heard was €80 for a 40 minute ride* – for a tour through the canals: not going to occur during the lifetime of the reigning monarch. But then I said that about going to Venice during Carnivale and look what happened!

One of the scenographic features of the recent exhibition at the Musée des Beaux Arts was a long wall cut by irregularly placed windows.  Through the windows you could see a gondola – not a priceless antique ceremonial gondola but an ordinary 20th century Venetian gondola.  Not that there is really anything ordinary about a gondola:  they are still handmade of 8 different types of wood (fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime) and are composed of 280 pieces. 

 The etymology of its name gondola is uncertain; it may be a portmanteau word –  the verb dondolare (to rock gently) and the Middle Age Greek kondura or short-tailed boat – older gondolas had a less soaring stern than today´s ones.  Or it may come from the Latin cunula or rocking crib.

The design has evolved greatly over the centuries and to govern further changes was codified by the city of Venice in the mid-20th century.   The gondola is still evolving: its sesto, the scalar ratio between the frames in its shape, is frequently updated.  This allows for changes to be made as gondolas fight the rise of the waves caused by motor boats and cruise liners.  Unlike older gondolas a modern gondola is asymmetrical to account for the position of the gondolier at the right on the stern (yes gondolas are right hand drive!). 

The elaborate stern decoration is called a risso or ringlet (that lovely brass decoration in the picture above) and is said to resemble the swirl of water in the wake of the vessel.  The prow decoration (and somehow I didn’t get a proper photograph of this one – how the hell did that happen?) is called a dolfin (dolphin) because of the resemblance to a dolphin’s muzzle.  The shape of both decorations has changed over the centuries.  The risso has become smaller and the dolfin has become redolent with symbols of Venice: the upper part recalls the Corno del Dose/Capello del doge (Crown of the Doge); the shank the meandering of the Grand Canal;  the arch signifies il ponte di Rialto and il bacino di San Marco; the comb the city´s Sestieri (six districts); the opposite tooth is Giudecca; while the decorated points between the teeth represent the three main Islands of the Lagoon (Torcello, Burano, Murano).  It should be noted that the cemetery island of San Michelle is missing from this symbolic icon – no point in tempting fate.

Though in the 17th and 18th centuries there were between eight to ten thousand gondolas in the Republic an earlier map from the 1500’s by Jacopo de’Barbari suggests that batellas, carolinas and galleys were the major modes of transportation.   Many gondolas where privately owned though there were also gondolas for hire.   Today there are approximate 400 gondolas, all of which are used in the tourist trade or for sporting events.

Gondolas were brightly, at time garishly, painted and laden with gold or silver ornaments and silk draperies and trappings.  In reaction to the extravagant nature of many of the private gondolas the Senate issued a sumptuary law in 1609 that all gondolas were to be painted black.  This did not stop people from adding elaborate  parecio or removable metal ornaments that served no real purpose other than decoration.  Elaborate metal-work (gold, silver, iron or brass), draperies and carvings often graced the felze or cabins that were a feature on gondolas up until the late 1940s.  However these enclosures that served as a source of protection from the sun, rain or prying eyes were removed after complaints from tourists that it blocked their view. 

The rèmo, or oar, is specially made by the rèmer (oarmaker), who exclusively builds oars and fórcola or oarlocks. The wood used for the rèmo is split beech, well-matured and without knots. It is carefully crafted to have a tapered blade at the end; the thickness of the oar gradually diminishes, which allows the oarsmen to row more with greater ease and agility.   A gondola is rowed not punted and the design of the boat and the oar mean that the effort required to paddle one with two people on board is equivalent to what a person would expend walking at the same speed.

The fórcola or oar lock is a highly personalized feature of any gondola.  It is a basic form that is adapted to the height of the gondolier, his arm length and rowing technique.  Its complex design allows for eight rowing positions the chief being a slow forward row, a powerful forward row, turning, slowing down, a backward row and stopping.  The process of creating this deceptively simply looking piece of wood takes several years and the knowledge of a craft and tools that are centuries old. While searching for information about this unique oar lock I came across an interesting site created for Saverio Pastor a master rèmer of Venice who creates oars and oarlocks.   A click through the various pages of Maitre Pastor’s site give visual life to the creation of the fórcola, its use, history and construction.

In the 17th century there were several thousand gondoliers and often they were run as a small private collective – three gondoliers and one dispatcher.  History suggests that they were the “secret holders” of the city:  conversations, assignations, plots and family (monkey) business were all overheard by the “family” or “taxi” driver.   Today the profession is controlled by a guild, which issues a limited number of licenses (425 regular – 175 fill-in) after 400 hours of training, a period of apprenticeship and a comprehensive exam of knowledge of Venetian history and geography, foreign languages and, of course, safe and efficient navigation of the gondola.  Few secrets or intrigues are overheard today other than mutterings about the price of a Bellini at Harry’s.  Prior to the Second World War the standard uniform for gondolieri was a black outfit however in modern times the more colourful blue and white or red and white stripped blouse has become the norm. 

It was not until 2010 that male dominance on the profession was challenged by Giorgia Boscolo who became a licensed gondolier (I’m not sure there is a feminine ending for the title) in August of 2010.   She was one of three female students that year – unfortunately the other two did not pass.  Her father, a retired gondolier, had some reservations and was quoted as saying:  I still think being a gondolier is a man’s job, but I am sure that with experience Giorgia will be able to do it easily.  Giorgia’s response was a typical Venetian shrug and the observation that “Childbirth is much more difficult.” 

Back to the exhibition that started me on the Veniza nostalgia trip:  so how do you get a slender (1.4m/4ft 6in) but long (11m/36ft) boat up to the third floor exhibition rooms of the Desmarais Pavilion?  Why the way you get anything into an upper story in most cities in Italy:  through an upstairs window!

While going through the many posts, articles and webpages available about gondolas and gondolieri I came across this rather fun quiz:  How Stuff Works – Gondola Quiz.   The first time I’ve ever put a “check for understanding” on a post.

*To be fair that is per gondola not per person and is the tariff set by the city of Venice. A gondola holds up to six people so the cost per person depends on the number in the group.  The routes are set and agreed upon prior to leaving the statzione.  And the gondolier does not – repeat – does not sing!

January 28 -1958: The last episode of the British radio comedy programme The Goon Show is broadcast.

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