The fascinating secrets of the Venetian Gondola

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Last Updated on November 7, 2023 by Laura Teso

The gondola [GON-doh-lah] is the typical Venetian boat, suitable to transport people.

Initially only persons of high rank used their gondola to get around town. Each noble family had its own private gondola, and of course a gondolier, called de casada (of the house).

The gondola wasn’t black

At that time only the hull was black, because of the pitch used to waterproof it. The boats were instead very rich in colours and decorations, because this served to the families to prove their wealth and importance. There was some sort of competition going on among noble families to possess the best, most adorned and rich gondola. In 1609 the Senate of Venice decided to put an end to this rivalry to reach the greatest pomp. And so it decreed that all gondolas had to be equal. From that time on they have been painted completely black.

Gondola ride
Gondola ride

Gondola trivia

  • The etymology is uncertain. It could come from the Greek kondura, some sort of boat, or from còncula, shell. Or maybe from the Latin gondeia, a kind of ship, or cunula, diminutive of crib. The only sure thing is the document in which the term appears for the first time: a decree of Doge Vitale Falier (1094).
  • The shipyard where the gondolas are built is the squero. Currently in Venice there are 5 squeri (plural of squero) that still build gondole (plural of gondola). If you want to learn more about it, read my post about the Venetian squero.
  • gondola consists of 280 different pieces, manufactured with 8 species of woodOak, Fir, Cherry tree, Larch, Linden, Walnut, Mahogany and Elm (each one of them suitable for certain parts of the boat).
  • It takes months of work to build one (at least 5).
  • The gondola then lasts about 30 years.
  • Once, gondolas could also have a cover, called felze. It was useful in case of rain, but also if the passengers didn’t want to be seen. 😉
  • Gondolas also had secret compartments, hidden under the seats or in the hull. Rumor has it they were often used for smuggling goods into Venice.
  • Nowadays in Venice there are about 500 gondole, whereas in the XVIII century there were 1.500.
  • A gondola is approximately 11 meters long and has an asymmetric shape, with the left side wider than the right, and is conducted by one gondolier, who uses only one oar (4,20 meters long, made of Beech), leaning on an oarlock called forcola.

Fero da prora, the prow iron of the gondola

The typical comb or prow iron (in Venetian fero da prora or dolfin) at the tip of the gondola helps to balance the weight of the gondolier. Its S form recalls the Grand Canal, while the 6 teeth facing forward represent the six districts of Venice. The tooth facing backward stands for the Giudecca Isle. The small arch over the highest tooth is the Rialto Bridge. The arched part at the top has a peculiar name, the Doge’s hat.

Fero da prora, gondola
Fero da prora, gondola

A Symbol of Venice’s Enduring Charm

The Venetian gondola has transcended its role as a mere mode of transportation, becoming an emblem of Venice’s rich heritage and enduring charm. Its presence is woven into the fabric of the city’s identity, evoking images of bygone eras and the unique allure of this captivating waterborne metropolis.

A ride on a Venetian gondola is not just a sightseeing excursion; it’s a journey through time and tradition, a chance to immerse oneself in the heart and soul of Venice. As the gondola glides through the canals, past grand palazzi and under romantic bridges, it carries passengers into a world of enchantment and timeless beauty, forever etching its memory in their hearts.