If I say, “Venice,” do you imagine yourself gliding down the Grand Canal, serenaded by a gondolier? There’s no doubt that the gondola is a symbol of Venice, Italy, but how did this curious banana-shaped black boat get its distinctive look? The origins of the Venetian gondola are lost to history, but by the 1500s, some 10,000 gondolas transported dignitaries, merchants and goods through the city’s canals. In fact, Venice teemed with many types of handmade boats, from utilitarian rafts to the Doge’s own ostentatious gilded barge. Like a modern day taxi system, gondolas were leased to boatmen who made the rounds of the city’s ferry stations.
Passengers paid a fare to be carried from one side of the Grand Canal to the other, as well as to other points around the city. But gondoliers soon developed a bad rap. Historical documents describe numerous infractions involving boatmen, including cursing, gambling, extorting passengers — even occasional acts of violence. To minimize the unpredictability of canal travel, Venetian citizens who could afford it purchased their own gondolas, just as a celebirty might use a private car and driver today.
These wealthy Venetians hired two private gondoliers to ferry them around the city and maintain their boats. The gondolas soon became a status symbol, much like an expensive car, with custom fittings, carved and gilded ornamentation, and seasonal fabrics, like silk and velvet. However, the majority of gondolas seen today are black because in 1562, Venetian authorities decreed that all but ceremonial gondolas be painted black in order to avoid sinfully extravagant displays. Apparently, Venetian authorities did not believe in “pimping their rides.” Still, some wealthy Venetians chose to pay the fines in order to maintain their ornamental gondolas, a small price to keep up appearances. The distinctive look of the gondola developed over many centuries. Each gondola was constructed in a family boatyard called a squero. >From their fathers and grandfathers, sons learned how to select and season pieces of beech, cherry, elm, fir, larch, lime, mahogany, oak and walnut.
The gondola makers began with a wooden template that may have been hammered into the workshop floor generations earlier. >From this basic form, they attached fore and aft sterns, then formed the longitudinal planks and ribs that made up the frame of a boat designed to glide through shallow, narrow canals. A gondola has no straight lines or edges. Its familiar profile was achieved through an impressive fire and water process that involved warping the boards with torches made of marsh reeds set ablaze.
However, the majority of the 500 hours that went into building a gondola involved the final stages: preparing surfaces and applying successive coats of waterproof varnish. The varnish was a family recipe, as closely guarded as one for risotto or a homemade sauce. Yet even with the woodwork finished, the gondola was still not complete. Specialized artisans supplied their gondola-making colleagues with elaborate covered passenger compartments, upholstery and ornaments of steel and brass.
Oar makers became integral partners to the gondola makers. The Venetian oarlock, or fórcola, began as a simple wooden fork, but evolved into a high-precision tool that allowed a gondolier to guide the oar into many positions. By the late 1800s, gondola makers began to make the left side of the gondola wider than the right as a counter balance to the force created by a single gondolier. This modification allowed rowers to steer from the right side only, and without lifting the oar from the water.
While these modifications improved gondola travel, they were not enough to keep pace with motorized boats. Today, only about 400 gondolas glide through the waterways of Venice, and each year, fewer authentic gondolas are turned out by hand. But along the alleys, street signs contain words in Venetian dialect for the locations of old boatyards, oar makers and ferry stations, imprinting the memory of the boat-building trades that once kept life in the most serene republic gliding along at a steady clip.