Did you know that there are only 425 professionally licensed gondoliers in Venice?
These card-carrying members of the Gondoliers’ Guild stand above and near the boat’s tail facing forward, balanced like tightrope walkers under the big top, and row one gentle stroke at a time.
And, why are gondolas only painted black?
Well, in the 16th century, in an effort to rein in the Venetian elite and their penchant to over decorate their individual craft, the city fathers, via a sumptuary law, decreed that only the color black would be used going forward. Aristocrats aside, the color black easily hid the dark pitch (resin) used to seal and waterproof gondolas, too.
In their heyday, between the 17th and 18th centuries, gondolas numbered nearly 10,000. Today, they’ve dwindled to about 400, all devoted entirely to tourists looking for a hired ride to carry them around postcard-perfect La Serenissima.
Il ferro (iron), the distinctive ornamentation at the prow of a gondola, the most forward part of the boat, serves as its front bumper protecting it from nicks and scratches and the occasional collision with other craft occupying the cramped, shared space.
The group of six prongs, or teeth, jutting out of the prow, represent the six sestiere (districts) of La Serenissima: Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce.
The lone prong, pointing in the opposite direction of the other six, represents the island of Giudecca.
The elegant curve at the top of the design represents the cap of the Doge, the leader of La Serenissima for almost 1,100 years.
And, the semicircle, between the curve at the top and the prongs below it, represents Ponte Rialto (Rialto Bridge), the oldest bridge across the Grand Canal.
La gondola. The prow and joy of Venice.