I wonder how many images, paintings, drawings, postcards snapshots, and selfies propagating through the ether, exist of Venice? The number has got be in the billion range. And at what rate does that number increase every day? More than 25 million tourists descend on Venice each year. Paris and environs is the world’s number 1 tourist destination at around 30 million visitors per year. To give that a little bit of perspective, the population of Venice is around 60,000 and of Paris about 2.2 million although the Metropolitan area of Paris has a population of well over 12 million.
And in how many of those images of Venice does a gondola appear? I have decided to add to the infinite number of images of gondolas that exist on the internet with my own favorite pictures! I also thought I would include some history of the gondola.
The gondola is a universal symbol immediately associated with Venice just as when you see a picture of the Eiffel tower you think of Paris. Dating to the 16th century the gondola is an elegant, enduring icon of design and practicality. At one time there were upwards of 10,000 of these glossy crafts plying the waters of Venice’s canals. Today there are around 400 in active service. The job of gondoliere is still a coveted profession and is still passed down from father to son. Interestingly, gondoliere are among the most well-paid workers in Venice, earning as much as 115,000 euros ($165,000) a year!
In a city of vibrant color, why are all gondolas painted black? During the Renaissance, the gondolas became a symbol of power and affluence for nobles and the upper middle class. The use of luxurious, precious fabrics and gilding became so excessive that in 1562 the Senate of the Venetian Republic issued sumptuary decrees (laws that limit private expenditure on food and personal items) aimed at limiting the excessive display in the decoration of the gondolas. This put an end to this “conspicuous consumption” and gondolas have been black ever since.
Gondolas owe their unique shape to a meticulous and elaborate building process based on techniques and principles that have remained unchanged for centuries. The asymmetric design, with a longer left-hand side, allows gondoliers to row in narrow spaces without changing the side the oar is on.
They are entirely hand-made from 280 interlocking parts that fit together like a puzzle. These parts are made of eight different types of wood: oak, mahogany, cherry, larch, fir, walnut, elm, and lime, each with their specific properties, necessary to give the shallow, asymmetrical boat its typical characteristics. Oak because it is very hard and resistant and available in very long boards, elm because it is elastic and essential to make the sanconi (the curved elements of the frame), fir because it is resistant in salt water, cherry because it can be easily bent when heated.
The only metal elements are the characteristic ferro at the prow (front) and the risso at the stern (rear). The ferro helps to counterbalance the weight of the gondolier. The right side of the gondola is lower since the gondoliere always stands on the left side of the boats stern.
The S shape of the ferro symbolizes the winding of the Grand Canal. The top of the S represents a stylized Doge’s cap on top of an arched opening, the Rialto Bridge. The six prongs represent the six sestieri of Venice: San Marco, San Polo, Santa Croce, Castello, Dorsoduro and Cannaregio. Sometimes you’ll see three smaller ornaments tucked within those prongs. They represent the three islands of Venice: Murano, Burano and Torcello.
The risso represents Giudecca the southern-most island facing the sestieri.
San Trovaso Squero, one of the last three surviving gondola constructors, hand-produces one or two gondolas each year. After they puzzle all the pieces together, the painting, the ferro and the forcole (the squiggly wooden post that serves as a complex oarlock) are commissioned out to the few remaining artisans that still do this traditional work.
A gondola can cost upwards of 30 to 40,000 euros ($45-55,000), depending on its amenities. A gondola of course needs regular maintenance to ensure a working life of several decades.
The work of the squeros and gondolieri continues on just like it has for more than five centuries.