La Gondola: The Prow and Joy of Venice

May 12, 2015 / Local Interest
Venice, Veneto

Did you know that there are only 425 professionally licensed gondoliers in Venice?

The Prow and Joy of Venice | ©

It’s true.

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?

The Prow and Joy of Venice | ©

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.

The Prow and Joy of Venice | ©

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 Prow and Joy of Venice | ©
The Prow and Joy of Venice | ©thepalladiantraveler.comMore than just a bumper, il ferro, next to the winged lion of St. Mark, is the most recognized symbol of the Most Serene Republic of Venice and describes in its design the City of Canals.

The metal band running down the face of the gondola has an “S” shape, representing the Grand Canal cutting its serpentine route through Venice.

The Prow and Joy of Venice | ©

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 Prow and Joy of Venice | ©

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.

by Tom Weber

Tom is a veteran print-broadcast journalist who resides in the Colli Euganei (Euganean Hills) in the province of Padova in the Veneto region of northestern Italy. He hosts the eclectic travel/foodie/photography blog The Palladian, is a regular contributor to Los Angeles-based, and is a member of the International Travel Writers Alliance. Feel free to follow Tom as he “meanders along the cobblestone to somewhere.”

20 Responses to “La Gondola: The Prow and Joy of Venice”

  1. louise

    Oh, to be in Venice again. Thanks for the info and the poetry of the island through your pictures.

  2. Maryanne Maggio Hanisch

    Even with culprits in pursuit, Indiana Jones had to pause and say, “Ah, Venice!”

  3. Jan Jessup

    I recall being told that “Il Ferro”, the metal ornamentation on the front of the gondola, also was used to cut through wires or ropes that spanned foreign harbors to keep out undesired visitors. The Venetians were empire-building from the 9th-14th centuries. Also, there is a gondola building/repair yard on the Giudecca not that far from the Peggy Guggenheim collection–fascinating to discover in your walks around Venice!

    • Jan — That “scudiera” is part of the larger Arti Veneziane alla Giudecca (AVG) — Venetian Arts on the Giudecca — a fairly new glassblowing and gondola factory.

  4. I shall be in Venice on Thursday the 14.05.15. I shall look at the beautiful black Gondola with new knowledge of its history. What a romantic craft. Thank you Tom .

    • Roz — I was there today (May 14th), too. Who knows, we may have crossed paths in one of the many narrow calle. Hope you enjoyed your visit to La Serenissima.

  5. Jack Litewka

    I’ve wondered about the black-paint convention for years…and now I know!

  6. William Strangio

    The gondola carpenters built two curves into the boat – one vertically
    and one horizontal -which other boats don’t have. When a boat is powered on one side it tends to make a boat turn in a circle. Hence the gondola’s curve -which most people don’t realize that the boat is curved. It was an ingenious
    solution . To think they weren’t physicists or engineers, but they certainly were smart and very good at observations, plus they must have made many gondolas
    \to get it so well built.

    • William — Right you. Limited to approximately 300 words for an Italian Notebook post, I couldn’t include the following additional info: Gondolas, new ones handmade by expert craftsmen, cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $45,000 USD, and are composed of 280 pieces fabricated from eight different kinds of wood. Sans passengers and gondolier, the boat weighs around 350 kg, is 10.85 m long by 1.40 m wide. And, the left side of the craft is a bit longer than the right side, to ensure that the gondola doesn’t favor moving to the left with every row stroke by the gondolier.

  7. Victoria De Maio

    As a lover of all things Italian and passionate about Venice, I love all of the detail and background. I had just been researching all of this and love it – again, fab photos & info, Tom.
    Will be checking them out firsthand in a few weeks.
    Grazie for another great piece,

    • Victoria — And, don’t forget to check out the gondoglieri, decide out in their striped shirts and straw hats.

  8. Lina Falcone

    Grazie for the great pictures and info. I would love to go to Venice again perhaps the next trip. Grazie mille.


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