Aug 31 2011
Venice Gondolas – Ten Things You Did Not Know
Few tourists enjoying the romance of Venice, Italy, can resist a ride in a gondola. The gondolier and gondola have become, for millions of tourists, the very symbols of Venice.
1. The Venice gondola is made from nearly 300 pieces of wood.
Not all the same wood either. A genuine Venetian gondola is built with seasoned mahogany, elm, lime, oak, walnut, larch, cherry and pine. There are more than 280 separate pieces of wood used in gondola construction. When finished, most gondolas are 11 metres length and weight about 600 kilos.
2. All Venice gondolas are painted black
It wasn’t always so, Once wealthy gondola owners tried to outdo each other with gilded prows, elaborate carvings, brightly coloured paint and ostentatious seats and cushions. It all came a head in 1562 with a city edict which ruled that gondolas must be uniformly black – the colour of the waterproofing pitch used in their construction. The black colour rule persists to this day.
3. One side of a Venice gondola is longer than the other
Take a measuring tape to a gondola and you will find that the left side is about 24 cm longer than the right. The modern twisted gondola design emerged in the 19th century when the skewed construction raised stern and helped improve manoeuvrability. It compensates for the weight of the gondolier and his single oar. The bottom is also flat, so the gondola can sail in just a few centimetres of water.
4. There were once at least 10,000 gondolas in Venice.
In 1600 there were an estimated 10,000 gondolas in daily use in and around the canals of Venice. Nowadays there are only about 500 and their use is limited almost exclusively to the tourist trade. And with an estimated 20 million visitors to Venice each year the gondoliers rarely wait long for a customer.
5. Venice gondolas are only built in “squero”
The “squero” is a special Venetian boatyard. The name probably comes from the Greek “eskarion” (harbour) but some think the name is derived from the “squara”, a special tool used by carpenters. There were once hundreds of such boatyards in in Venice. Today there are only five, each turning out a new gondola every three months with a price tag of at least €20,000. At the “squero” of San Trovaso in Dorsoduro you can still watch the craftsmen at work.
6. The metal prow of a Venice gondola always has six teeth
The toothed metal nose on the front of every gondola helps to balance the weight of the gondolier. It always has just six ‘teeth’ in a decorative double S design. The stylized shape represents the S of the Grand Canal and the six teeth are the six “sestieri” or areas of the city of Venice. The backward facing tooth represents island of Giudecca.
7. Venice gondolas once had cabins
Before being used exclusively for tourism, gondolas often had a removable cabin called a “felse” for use in the winter or at night. It came with a door, sliding windows and curtains. The “felse” offered protection for passengers from bad weather and prying eyes.
8. Venetians build special gondolas for racing
The gondolino is a fast boat similar to a gondola but much more difficult to row. It is used exclusively in the annual Historic Regatta (Regata Storica) race. This annual event is a trial of strength and skill for the city’s gondoliers. It begins with a grand procession of historic craft along the Grand Canal course followed by races. The gondolino dates from 1825. It looks like a gondola but is shorter at 10.5 m and it weighs only 160 kilos.
9. Venice gondoliers use a paddle, not a pole
Contrary to popular belief the gondola is never poled; the waters of Venice are too deep for that. The gondoliers’ oars are large paddles made out of well seasoned beech. They must have a special taper to work properly and building the oars requires great skill. Specialist carpenters called “remeri” were once dedicated to it..
10. The Venice gondola was first mentioned in 1094
The gondola of Venice is mentioned for the first time in an official document in 1094. in a decree from the doge Vitale Falier in which he allows the citizens in the south of Venice to use a “gondulam”.The origin of the name is very uncertain. Some date it back to the Latin “cymbula” ( little boat) or to “cuncula” ( shell). Others claim it is from the Greek “kundy” ( navigate) or “kunto-helas”( paddle boat).