The gondola of Venice

Author: Joseph-Stephen Bonanno,B.A.(Hons)(Melit.)

On Friday 5th December 2014, I had the opportunity to visit the Museo Storico Navale (historical naval museum) of Venice, which is owned by the Italian Navy. Since 1958 the museum is housed in a building dating from the 15th Century which was once the Granary of the “Serenissima” (The Most Serene Republic of Venice), on the water front in Campo San Biagio, near the Arsenal. It was the Austrians who, in 1815, first had the idea of assembling the remnants of the Venetian navy and creating a historical naval museum.

Venice Naval History museum; Venice gondola;

Venice Naval History museum, Italy, Europe

The exhibition space is organized on five floors, offering 42 exhibition galleries. The first exhibits one can see on entering are the World War II human torpedoes or maiale (pig). Torpedoes such as these helped sink HMS Valiant and HMS Queen Elizabeth: they were guided to their target by naval divers who jumped off just before impact.

The rest of the museum is divided into the Venetian navy, the Italian navy from 1860 to today, Adriatic vessels and the Swedish room. Among the many models, one can find a replica of the Doge’s ceremonial barge, the Bucintoro.

On the third floor, one room is dedicated entirely to what for millions of tourists, is the very symbol of Venice, the gondola.

The Gondola

The gondola is the most famous of the lagoon boats. It is the only boat in the world which, being just 11 metres long and weighing more than 600 kilograms, can be steered with agility and easiness by just one person and with only one oar. The gondola is the end-result of centuries of development aimed at the maximum perfection for a given environment. It combines the most notable features of the all lagoon boats adapted for its own use. Before the introduction of mechanical propulsion there were various kinds of gondola, each with its particular purpose:

  • The barcheta or batelo which was heavier than the present-day gondola with no iron work (feri) on stem or stern-post but simple iron bands, the massoch. It was used for ferrying to and from the island and the mainland;
  •  The gondola da tragheto, the ferry gondola, still used as such, is the same length as the ordinary gondola but is beamier, less asymmetrical and has less sheer;
  •  The gondola a coa de gambero or gondola falcada, which has a sharply raked bow, flared rubbing-strakes joining the stem with a hollow, and a wrought-iron curl fixed to the nose for protection: used for transport of goods;
  • The gondola da fresco (summer gondola), similar to the barcheta but lighter, was used, as its name suggests, as pleasure boat;
  • The gondola da regatta, gondolon and the gondolin were varieties of the common gondola, either larger (gondolon) or smaller (gondolin), were painted one of eight traditional colours and employed only for racing;
  • The balotina, similar to the common gondola but less asymmetrical and with a different positioning of the thwarts, is used for official occasions and races. 1

Venice Naval History museum; Venice gondola;

The origin of its name is extremely uncertain and discussed; some people make it trace back to the latin ‘cymbula’ which means little boat or ‘cuncula’, that is the diminutive of ‘concha’, namely, ‘shell’. Others refer it to the Greek ‘kundy’, small craft, or to ‘kuntò-helas’ namely push craft.

The first time that the name gondola appears in an official document is in 1094. It is in a decree of doge Vitale Falier who exempted the inhabitants of a place to the south of Venice from supplying a ‘gondulam’.

Until the end of the 15th century the gondola had no distinguishing features to differentiate it from other lagoon boats. The shape and size of the hull were dictated by the use it was put to. Then there began that slow transformations by which the gondola was to acquire its individuality; rich decorations were added without its functionality being impaired.

In the 16th century the gondolas were already black. This was due to the use of pitch as a waterproofing and not to the commemoration of mournful pestilence, like some legends recount.

1 R. Pergolis & U. Pizzarello, Le Barche di Venezia, ( L’Altra Riva, Venice, 1981).

From the 18th century there are pictures in abundance, though not always with clear detail. The Venetian vedutisti, especially Canaletto, Bellotto and Guardi, show us the gondola in the final stage of its development. This is incontrovertibly confirmed by the work entitled Architectura Navalis Mercatoria by Frederick Henrik af Chamman, printed in Stockholm in 1768.

Historians credit the 19th century boat maker Domenico Tramontin with the design of the gondola as we know it today. It is unique for its constructive characteristiques. First of all it is asymmetrical, as its left side is larger than the right one by 24cm and so it always sails tilted on one side. The keel, thus, is not straight but it bends to the right, so that the gondola floats particularly tilted on the right-hand side. That allows the counterbalancing of the push of the only oar which would tend to carry it to the left side. It has got a flat bottom which let it sail in shallow water.

The gondola is built in the traditional Venetian way. First different woods are chosen according to the function of each part of structure. For its construction more than 280 separate pieces and eight different types of woods are used – cherry, elm, fir larch, lime, mahogany, oak and walnut (plus beech for the oar). The only metal elements are the fero (iron) made of six teeth at the bow (front), whose S form should imitate the winding of the Canal Grande and the lunette, placed under a stylized dodge’s cap, the bridge of Rialto, while the six teeth should represent the six sestieri into which Venice is divided and the risso (crook) astern (back), which should symbolize Giudecca island. A gondola takes around three months to build and costs about £10,000.

Venice gondola

Venice Naval History museum; Venice gondola;

Venice Naval History museum; Venice gondola;

The felze, the traditional cabine covering, is no longer in use today. It was made of a coarse material called rassa, after the name of the Bosnian region it came from, fixed battens onto arches of cane or wood.

At one time it was usual for a wealthy family to own their gondola, the gondola de casada, and employed a full-time gondolier. However times have changed, and today one could count the gondola de casada on the fingers of one hand. Nowadays, only 425 licensed gondoliers (and 175 substitutes) ply Venice’s canals, down from a peak of more than 10,000 at the end of the 16th century.

As the English poet Arthur H. Clough (1819-61) said: ‘Afloat. We move: Delicious! Ah, what else is like the gondola?’

Venice gondola Venice gondola

Notes:

  1. R. Pergolis & U. Pizzarello, Le Barche di Venezia, ( L’Altra Riva, Venice, 1981).

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