It occurs to me that most of the culture in Italy is built in layers, upon layers, upon which its truths become known. We see it in art as the stiff figures of the 14th century transformed into more human forms in which beauty could be brought forth and appreciated in the natural landscape not just a gold background. We see it in the ever present layering of flavors and food. We see it in the teachings of the ancients and in the culture today.
In Venice, for example, one of its symbols is the gondola. A tradition of centuries and construction of layers. The iron of the bow is structured to communicate the historic and cultural grandeur of the city. The upper part specifies the Doge’s hat, beneath it is the arch to represent the Rialto Bridge. The double “S” that runs the length of the iron bow represents the Grand Canal. Each of the prongs jutting out below the Doge’s hat represent the six “sestieri” (districts): San Marco, San Polo, Santa Croce, Castello, Dosoduro and Cannaregio. More recent finishes on the back side of the prongs are meant to represent the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.
Like the “slow food” known to be the tradition in the Italian kitchen, and signature of famous chefs, a gondola takes time to build, about a year. Comprised of 280 pieces, made from 8 different types of wood: oak, elm, lime, larch, fir, cherry, walnut and mahogany. The oar is made of beech and the “forcola” or oarlock (a work of art itself) is made of walnut. The only parts in metal are the “ferro” in front of the craft, and the “risso” at the back. The flat bottom allows for easy navigation in shallow waters. The gondola is asymmetrical, 24cm longer on the left to help counterbalance both the gondolier’s weight at the back and the tendency of the boat to sway left since the gondolier continually rows on the right.
Competing noblemen would weigh lavish decoration upon the gondolas during Serenissima’s splendor during the 15th and 16th centuries, including settees for lovers inside small cabins with doors, windows, draperies and heaters. The Senate ruled with a law that holds fast today that all gondolas now must be standardized and painted black.
It is not easy to become a professional gondolier. Traditionally, only men were allowed to be gondoliers, from a family of gondoliers. The “Ente Gondola” guild imposes strict requirements that include attending a special school, passing a public competition, and apprenticeship to a professional gondolier for 6-12 months.
Venice is one of Italy’s wealthiest provinces, the cost of living is high and so is the gondolier’s investment. A gondolier could earn more money for less work on the mainland, but his passion is in his highly competitive trade, where he must make a living a few months of the year. Gondolas cost upwards of 20,000 euros and take over 500 hours to build. A traghetto is a public gondola ferry and a great value at only 2 euros to cross the Grand Canal at different spots. The vaporettos are public water buses for which a city card grants you indefinite access on different lines serving different neighborhoods. Water taxis are more expensive private service transport about the canals and to the airport. From the airport, a transit bus may be the least expensive and quickest way to your hotel, compared to the Alilaguna blue line boat. With 400+ footbridges with multitudeness stairs, it’s best to pick a hotel that’s easy to reach, wheeled luggage notwithstanding. There are no taxis or rickshaws in Venice. Nor Uber.
The first female gondoliera was licensed in 2010. Giorgia Boscolo, the 24 year old daughter of a 40-year veteran gondolier, was the first to pass the requirements and obtain a license. Alex Hai, a transgender man, was granted an unofficial gondolier license (Italy is full of controversy) and operates private tours from one of the hotel sites in Venice.
The logo on the gondolier’s uniform features St. Mark as the winged lion holding an open book, a symbol of peace and strength, framed by two traditional iron gondola prow ornaments. I was surprised to find the very uniform shirts, sweaters, jackets and more for sale in two shops at the Rialto and one in Cannaregio. Although you can find look-alike items on Amazon, and with vendors in Venice, only the deemed-authentic uniform is found in Venice and on the emilioceccato.com site.
Buying them, I’m told, supports the gondolieri and their trade. The authentic emblem is sewn right into the clothing and represents the Venetian lion and Association of Gondolieri. Does every oarsman wear the authentic emblemed shirt or jacket? No.
Want a Ride? Practicalities and the Price
Some liken it to a hansom cab in New York’s Central Park. “Best to enjoy the ride and forget the price.” As negotiable as it is, however, be prepared. A gondola carries up to six passengers, and the city of Venice sets the rates at about 80 euros for 40 minutes, tip not included. Additional 20-minute increments are 40 euros and up after 7p.m. Gondoliers are their own master, boosting the price with singing, or regarding the official rates as polite fiction. A concierge can negotiate for you, even seek out wheelchair accommodation, but may add further charges, and/or increasing the risk of miss-communication. Have in mind exactly what kind of ride you want, and where you want to go also well specified before you set foot in the boat.