The story of gondola, symbol of Venice

The gondola is the typical boat of Venice. Who doesn’t know it?
It is unique, like the city it represents, also for its characteristics.

Let’s find out what they are and what its history is.

The gondola is made up of 280 different pieces and 8 different types of woods. Despite being 5.5 feet long and 4.5 feet wide with a weight of 1,500 lbs., the gondola can be maneuvered by only one person and with just one oar.

The left side is wider than the right side. It then navigates tilted on its side and its flat bottom allows it to sail even on very shallow waters.


The asimmetric shape of the gondola – © Marco Secchi

The oar is held in an oarlock known as a fórcola, which allows several positions of the oar for different types of rowing.

The ornament on the front of the boat is called fèrro (meaning iron) and can be made from brass, stainless steel, or aluminum. It serves as decoration and as counterweight for the gondolier standing near the stern.


The ferro – © gnuckx

The ferro has a very precise symbolism. The “S” shape symbolizes twists of the Canal Grande. Under the main blade there is a kind of comb with six teeth pointing forward, standing for the six districts (sestrieri) of Venice. The tooth on the back symbolizes the island of Giudecca. The curved top represents the Doge’s cap.

The semi-circular break between the curved top and the six teeth represent the Rialto Bridge.

The three friezes in-between the six prongs, indicate the three main islands of the city: Murano, Burano and Torcello.

The ancient gondolas were very different from those of today.

One of the first images of the gondola is in the painting, Miracle of the Cross in Rialto, by the painter Vittore Carpaccio, from 1494. They appear shorter, wider and less slender than the current ones and above all without asymmetries. The ferro is still very simple, far from the current shape.

Vittore Carpaccio

Vittore Carpaccio – Miracle of the Cross in Rialto, 1494 (detail)

Between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, a period of great economic prosperity, noble families began to decorate the gondolas with ever greater splendor.

After the plague of 1630, the government ordered to dye the gondolas of black as a sign of mourning. It is on this occasion that the gondola assumed one of its distinctive traits.

It was only between 1600 and 1700 that the physiognomy of the gondola, increasingly used for private transport of representation, came close to the current one.

In the nineteenth century, the gondola took the elongated, narrow and asymmetrical shape, to allow a single gondolier to be able to maneuver it easily and even in very narrow spaces

In the 1500s an estimated 10,000 gondolas of all types were in Venice, in 1878 an estimated 4000 and now approximately 400.

The gondola is one with its own boatman, but it isn’t easy to become a gondolier.

They must attend a period of training and apprenticeship, with a final exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills, and practical skills in handling the gondola. Such skills are necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals.

Gondoliers dress in a blue or red striped top, red neckerchief, wide-brimmed straw hat and dark pants.


A gondolier © Annie Spratt

The gondola is an important part of Venice: its symbol, its essence. Venice is even more beautiful when seen from the water, even better with a gondola ride.
To experience a gondola ride, book a tour today.

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