Ahhhhh. Who doesn't think of Venice and not think about a dreamy romantic gondola ride? But, did you know there's a bigger story behind the gondola besides being a boat for fairy-tale experiences?
The origin of the name "gondola" and the boat's exact birth is unknown. It began to make an appearance in paintings in the late 15th century. Over time, the gondola took on characteristics of a boat designed for private transfer--particularly, for persons of certain rank. Once made with a felze, a closed cabin that offered passengers shelter from bad weather and privacy for reading, conversation, or . . . well, we don't really want to go there, do we? Throughout the centuries, the gondola modified to the open-air version we see today.
There is a tremendous amount of science and art behind building a gondola. The boat is 36 feet in length, weighs 1,320 pounds, and is made with eight different types of wood. With it's asymmetrical outline (the left side is slightly larger than the right side), it can be maneuvered with ease by a single man with a single oar. The bottom is flat for easy navigation through shallow waters. The front ornament, known as Ferro, serves to protect the front of the boat from accidental damages, and to counterweight the front with the back.
The yards where gondolas are built are called "squeri" and the men who build them are "squeraroli." Nowadays, it is rare to find squeri in Venice, being replaced by revolutionized technologies.
The oars used to steer the gondola have a story of their own. They are built by specialists call remeri and have a unique shape that allows the gondolier (oarsman) to steer forward, slow down, turn and row in reverse.
There is, as well, a bit of science and art form to becoming a gondolier. All respectable gondoliers have joined The Society of Gondoliers, a traditional guild. To become members, you must pass a driver's test, so to speak.
Today, gondolas are used for tourists and celebrations. You can hire a gondolier to take you across the Grand Canal, or you can arrange for a 40-minute romantic ride complete with musicians or a serenade. For more tips on gondola rides and pricing, check out my Three Days In Venice post.