Corruption, wealth and beauty: The history of the Venetian gondola – Laura Morelli


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 Historical documents describe numerous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.

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