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The gondola: history, tradition and curiosities

The gondola: history, tradition and curiosities

October 2022

The origins

Although the exact origin of the name gondola is unknown, there are several hypotheses: the most reliable one argues that it derives from the Latin term cymbula, which indicates a small boat. Other sources believe that the origin lies in the Greek word kountelàs, which instead means “short boat”.

But how long have gondolas been around? Also in this case we don’t have an official date, but we know for sure that the term gondolam appeared for the first time in 1094, in a decree signed by the Doge Vitale Falier.

As for the visual arts, it is interesting to know that the first image of a gondola, very similar to the contemporary one, appeared in one of Vittore Carpaccio’s masterpieces, Miracle of the Cross in Rialto, dating back to 1494 and now exhibited in the Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Habits and customs

Considering the conformation of Venice, it is easy to imagine why such a boat has been so successful: it sneaks nimbly into the canals, manages to pass under the bridges and, thanks to its flat bottom, it can sail even when the canal bed is dry. In the past centuries the gondola was used as the principal means of transport by all Venetians.

Each family, regardless of their prestige, relied on their own gondolas and on their “gondolieri de casada”, sailors in charge of transporting the owners and their families from one building to another. Back then, like today, there were stazi (the boarding points) located across the city.

In the past, a cover called felze was built in the center of the gondola and used mainly in winter and at night. Today it has fallen into disuse because it reduces visibility, but back then it was equipped with a door and sliding windows, mirrors and a warmer. In other words, it protected passengers from both the cold and prying eyes.

Figures and facts

Some interesting facts to learn more about one of the most famous boats in the world: the Venetian gondola weighs about 500 kilos, is 11 m long, about 1.65 m high, and 1.42 m wide.

But there is a very curious feature that you probably haven’t noticed yet: the gondola is asymmetrical! To be exact, the left side is 24 cm wider than the right one and, therefore, the gondola always sails tilted to one side.

For the construction of a gondola, which requires about 500 hours of work, 8 types of wood are used, each with its own function. Some examples: pine and larch, very water resistant, are used for the parts immersed in water; oakwood is used for the hull and sides thanks to its high resistance; elm, hard but also extremely elastic, is ideal for the edges.

Of the 280 parts that make up the gondola, only two are in metal: the characteristic “fèro” (iron) at the bow and the “risso” (curl) at the stern.

The ferro di prua

This traditional iron component (in Venetian dolfin or fero da próva) not only plays a decorative role, it also has the purpose of protecting the bow from possible collisions. Its shape, apparently bizarre, actually has a very specific meaning: the “S” shape represents the Grand Canal, the six forward facing teeth are the six districts of Venice, while the one at the back represents the Giudecca. The upper part represents the Doge’s hat, while the arch above the highest tooth of the comb represents the Rialto Bridge.

In some recently built gondolas there are three additional features that represent the most important islands of the lagoon: Murano, Burano and Torcello.
gondola ferro di prua

The Squero

The gondola is built in small shipyards called squèri, where once all sorts of boats were actually built. However, the inauguration of the Arsenale reduced their workload and the squero thus became increasingly specialized in the construction and storage of gondolas only. The name derives from a work tool, the square set, called “squara” in the Venetian dialect and the craft of the squerarolo is still highly qualified, handed down from father to son or from teacher to apprentice.

The squero has a particular and recognizable structure: you’ll immediately notice the sloping square towards the canal that facilitates the access of boats. Behind it, there’s a wooden construction called tesa, which serves as a shelter but also as a tool shed. The squero of the Daniele Manin Cooperative in San Trovaso is the most famous and definitely worth a stop.

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