gondola

Everything You Need to Know About Venetian Gondola

Gondolas are a type of traditional boat found in Venice, Italy. These boats are long, narrow, flat-bottomed and asymmetric in shape, making them the perfect mode of transport for navigating the narrow Venetian canals. Their unique shape and details never make them go unnoticed in the clear waters of Venice.

Earlier, they were used as the main mode of transport. However, today they are merely a part of the tourist experience in Venice.

About Venice

Venice is one of the world’s most popular island-cities. The city is actually a cluster of more than 100 islands located in the Venetian lagoon, connected to the Adriatic Sea. It is the capital city of the Metropolitan City of Venice, which is part of the Veneto region located in the northeastern part of Italy. The entire Venetian lagoon is a UNESCO world heritage site in 1987, and met 6 of their 10 point criteria.

Venice depends highly on tourism and it is the only major industry in Venice. Most of the real estate is used as hotels, museums, and spaces to support the tourists’ demand for the destination.

The tourists are attracted to what the place has to offer. That includes everything from events such as the Venetian Film Festival, the Venetian Carnival to Byzantine, Renaissance and Gothic architecture, cuisine, waterways and gondolas.

Aerial view of Venice
Aerial view of Venice. Photo by @canmandawe on Unsplash

This post touches on everything there is to know about the Venetian Gondola, from its history, usage, and production to its impact on the locals. In the end, I recommend places worth visiting in Venice that are relevant to the Gondola.

History of the Gondola

Venice was established in the 5th century and since the 10th century, it had become a powerful European city thanks to its location. The location enabled it to be a port city with international trading connections with other countries. This generated a consistent amount of revenue, making it a wealthy city.  Being a maritime trading power, shipbuilding became the largest industry between the 15th and 16th centuries.

Though there is historical evidence suggesting that gondolas had existed even in the 11th century, it wasn’t until the 16th century that more records were available. It was only then that the gondolas were being used to transport goods and important people across the Venetian canals. Soon, gondoliers or boatmen, were leased the boats, who would use them as vehicles for hire. Kind of like the modern-day taxi. Passengers would pay a fee to be taken from one place to another within the canal. However, soon these gondoliers would start terrorizing passengers, presumably regarding the fares. That is when the wealthy began to purchase their own transport and employ their personal gondoliers, like personal chauffeurs today, to avoid those traumatizing situations.

Soon it became a symbol of wealth and status in Venice and most wealthy families would own their own private transport by the 19th century. Meanwhile, the poor travelled by foot or used semi-privatized ferries to cross the Grand Canal.

By the late 19th century, motorized boats were introduced to Venice, which were much faster and more efficient than the hand-rowed gondolas. As such, the traditional boats could not compete with them and soon the use of gondolas declined.

The need for a Gondola

The narrow canals of Venice are what inspired the design of the boats. Therefore, the gondolas, too, are long and narrow.

Venice is dependent on its canals to navigate within and outside the city. This even includes an everyday commute for running errands.

Historically, Gondolas and other forms of traditional boats were used for daily commutes.

Nowadays, the locals use aquatic public transport in the form of water buses and water taxis. The latter, however, is more popular with tourists, due to its costs.

Difference between water taxis, gondolas, and water buses

At this point, you may be wondering if the aquatic public transport is the same as gondolas. Well, they are not the same and here are the differences:

Water taxis: These are basically speed-boats. They are the fastest mode of transport for navigation but, they are also very expensive. They can go anywhere within the city and are popular with tourists, who use them to reach Venice from the airport.

water taxi
Water Taxi. Image Credit: Book Taxi Venice

Water buses: These are called Vaporetto or long motorboats that act as the common public transport used by the locals to move around the city. The Vaporetto follows designated routes that link the major parts of the city.

water bus
Water Bus. Image Credit: Introducing Venice

Gondolas: Traditional wooden motorless boats rowed by gondoliers. These operate only from one point to another point on the canals.

The Traghetto is a type of longer gondola, used only to cross the Grand Canal. It is a faster way to cross the canal, especially while carrying groceries or other heavy baggage, instead of walking. Moreover, it is definitely cheaper than the gondola tourists use. It is normally shared with other people and up to 10 people can ride on it.

traghetto
Gondola Traghetto Image credit: Italy this way

The Gondolier

As mentioned earlier, gondoliers are the people who steer these traditional boats. They wear an iconic uniform with stripes on them.

The story behind the uniform

Boatmen in the 15th and 16th centuries started wearing bright and colourful outfits. Some sources say that their employers would make them wear these clothes to show others that the gondolier belonged to a certain prominent family. These uniforms would correspond to the Venetian district that the families originated from. This was another way for the wealthy to further flaunt their status and power.

gondolier stripes
Image of a gondolier wearing the iconic striped uniform. Image by Bernd Hildebrandt from Pixabay

Gondoliers require a specific skill set to steer the gondola. This skill is part of the intangible cultural heritage of Venice. The gondolier tactfully moves the boat using one oar on the waterways. Navigating in narrow canals with other boats passing by takes years of practice to master.

Squero and Squeraroli

The place where gondolas are made is called a squero. This word could refer to the place or even the equipment required to manufacture and repair them.

The place was initially only used for the construction of boats but over the years, it has become a place for maintaining and even storing all types of traditional boats.

squero
Squero di San Trovaso, one of the oldest remaining squero in Venice. Photo by Marika Sartori on Unsplash

The people who build the boats are called squeraroli. The entire process of construction and manufacturing the required parts is done by hand and from memory. It takes several months to make a boat fit for use.

The skill and designs of the boat are passed on from one generation to the other: usually from father to son or master to apprentice. Mastering the skill takes up to 3 years and requires future craftsmen to take an exam as well.

Required materials

To make a traditional gondola, 8 types of wood, namely: fir, cherry, larch, mahogany, walnut, elm, oak and beech are used. Sometimes, iron and fibreglass are also used.

280 parts are required in total to manufacture the boats.

Why 8 types of wood?

This is because each wood has its own unique property that is crucial for the functioning of the gondola. The properties for some of the wood are as follows:

Oak: Malleable yet hard and resistant to rotting

Elm: This wood is needed for the inside of the boat. It is elastic and will not split.

Cherry: Ideal for decorations.

Mahogany: Used to make the stern, bow and deck because of its absorbent properties. This makes it a great material for avoiding cracks.
It also keeps destructive pests such as termites away and prevents oxidation.

Fir: Water-Resistant.

Larch: High resin content, good waterproofing properties.

The Process

The entire process is extremely detailed and requires a lot of effort, patience, and skill.

  1. The squeraroli pay a visit to the lumberyard to choose the wood they will build the boat with. Oakwood is the most difficult to find.
  2. The wood arrives at the squero and it is cut into boards with different thicknesses. This wood is left to dry or to ‘season’ for approximately 1-2 years.
  3. Once seasoned, the framework of the boat is made using elm.
  4. Then, the cut boards are joined to form the bow (the front tip of the boat) and the stern (the back of the boat).
  5. The sides of the boats are made of curved wood. The curve comes from processing it with fire and water.
  6. All other parts of the boat are joined together.
  7. The hull is waterproofed, covering all the cracks by pouring hot pitch, which hardens when cooled.
  8. The interior of the boat is painted with waterproof varnish, and carpets and sofas are fitted inside.
  9. Iron is added to the bow according to the weight of the gondolier.

It is interesting to note that, while the squeraroli make the boats, the remeri manufacture the oarlock called the Forcola. This is made exclusively of walnut wood and the oar itself is made of beech wood.

The forcola at the stern, or back of the boat, is what allows the oars to propel the water to navigate the boat in various directions.

forcola
The Forcola is made of walnut wood. Image Credit: Le Forcole

Gondolas are more popular, using only one oar to steer the boat. However, it isn’t uncommon to see boats with 2 or even 4 oars. However, is the most a boat can have.

The experience in a Gondola

A gondolier helps the passenger onto the boat. Upon boarding, they sit and relax on the cushiony seat installed in the gondola. Normally, 6 is the maximum a traditional gondola can hold. This would, however, depend on the weight of the passengers. To maintain the proper balance of the boat, most gondoliers tell passengers where to sit.
After all, he is not only responsible for transporting people but, also to ensure their safety.

Then, he uses the oar to paddle from one point to another within the canals, while telling stories about Venice and, singing occasionally.

Gondola rides can either be private or shared. The private ride usually lasts 30 minutes and costs €80 during the day, and more at night. The prices are normally fixed, but it is sometimes possible to negotiate the prices for longer tours.

Fun fact: Some sources say that the Gondoliers’ favourite passenger is one who offers them a cigarette along with the payment.

Interesting facts about the Gondola 

  • Historically, when some families of the nobility would go out of town or go for long trips in their personal gondola, they would need shelter, especially during winter. As such, some of the boats from the 20th century had removable shelters called felze installed on them.
    Today, the remaining few boats with these felze offer shelter to tourists. However, they are often unpleasant as they block the visibility of the scenic beauty that the tourists travel for.
  • All traditional gondolas are painted black. Initially, only the hull would be black as a substance called black pitch, was used to waterproof it.
    Later, in the 17th century, the Venetian Senate had made it obligatory to paint the boats black as they did not wish to make them objects of extravagance. They only allowed golden designs on ceremonial gondolas.
    The locals and even some tourists, now use those boats for special occasions such as weddings.
gold on gondola
Gold decorations on a Gondola. Image Credit: Venice Events

Cultural Importance

Initially, the gondola was an indicator of wealth and status. Due to its connection with Venetian history, it is a part of the city’s identity, making it an important cultural asset.

Present-day

Venice is dependent on mass tourism. Every year, 14 million tourists visit the island-city, at times even exceeding the number of local inhabitants.

As Gondolas are an identity of Venice, it attracts tourists to take a ride while enjoying the Venetian landscape. They hope to experience life like Renaissance nobility for a couple of minutes, but what they get is a more modern experience, as the city has also evolved with time. Even though it retains its ancient architecture, the spirit of the city is modern.

Though gondolas are no longer used by the locals for their daily commute, the gondoliers have stayed in business thanks to the tourists. Gondoliers are one of the highest-paying occupations in Venice, with an annual income of as much as $150,000.

However, it is also because of tourists that locals are starting to move out of Venice. Local businesses charge the tourist price even for the locals, making the cost of living expensive. Plus, there are limited employment opportunities outside tourism in Venice.

As for the gondoliers, even with their income, they can’t often find spacious places to live within the city due to the lack of land, and because the majority of the real estate is used for tourists. On top of that, they have the extra expense of purchasing or maintaining their gondolas.

Gondolas can range from  €20,000 to  €40,000.

Places to visit and things to do related to the Gondola

San Trovaso Squero: A squero operating since before the 17th century. It is one of the few remaining squeri in Venice. Here you can book guided tours to see the craftsmanship of the squeraroli. Click here for their official website.

The Grand Canal: The most famous canal in Venice. It is the main canal of Venice that connects most of the iconic Venetian palaces. Ride the gondola or traghetti through this waterway to complete your experience in Venice.

grand canal
The Grand Canal. Image Credit: PlanetWare

Rialto Bridge: This is the oldest bridge within the Grand Canal. It is an iconic piece of architecture and emblematic of the Venetian landscape. Gondola tour rides always pass through this bridge, especially during sunset. It is one of the most romantic spots in Venice.

rialto bridge
Rialto Bridge. Image Credit: Viator

Vogalonga Regatta: The summer rowboat festival where people come together to row a traditional Venetian longboat as a form of protest against the motorboats that pollute the lagoon.

This non-competitive competition covers a route throughout the islands of Venice, starting from the Grand Canal. Anyone can participate in the event. Though it does not use the Gondola, it is definitely worth being part of the experience. Click here for registration and more details about the event.

vogalonga regatta
The Vogalonga Regatta competition. Image Credit: Classic Boats Venice

In summary, the current history of the gondola is blurry and is said to be lost in time. However, its spirit still lives on in the beautiful city of Venice. This post talked about the production of gondolas, gondoliers, the experience of a gondola and the impact a gondola has on the people of Venice. Although each topic could be its own post, this one briefly summarizes them all here, making this the guide to everything you need to know about Venetian Gondola.

Please do not hesitate to share your thoughts in the comments. Click here for more posts like this.

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