Venetian Gondolier: Discover the Traditions and Curiosities of Venice’s Most Romantic Profession
Discover the captivating history of the gondolier – Venice’s most enchanting profession
“Mi son el gondolier
che in gondola te ninòa,
se el remo in forcòla sigòa,
coverze el scìoco dei basi (…)”
“I am the gondolier /who cradles you in my gondola/if the oar in its oarlock squeaks/it masks the smack of your kisses (…)”.
Echoes of these notes resound every day in the canals of Venice. The gondoliers sing them whilst they row and is now part of the soundtrack of this city.
In this, as in many other “barcarole”, the popular songs that in the eighteenth century accompanied gondola rides, the Gondolier is represented as an expert boatsman, a reassuring presence, a complicit and discreet person. His professional role is tightly linked to the evolution of Venetian history and society.
Gondoliers were originally private professionals who lent their skills to noble families who paid and hosted them. At their disposal night and day, they were always ready to take them around on the gondola for a “Fresco”, a ride for business or pleasure, accompanied by the typical “barcarole” in which Venetian music repertoire is rich. According to the Venetian playwrite Carlo Goldoni’s definition they were “Gondolieri de Casada” – Gondoliers of the Household.
Held in high esteem by the Government of the Serenissima, their work used to be passed down from father to son, inherited, so it was considered a privileged profession.
This is why they were considered a caste.
Chatting with today’s gondoliers, it turns out that even today the profession is handed down from generation to generation within the same family:
I grew up in a family of gondoliers. I am the fifth generation. To steer a gondola came in a natural way to me and I knew how to ride a gondola even before making it a professional choice. I enjoyed myself and this job gave me more satisfaction than studying.
This enchanting and romantic profession has no equal in the world.
The Gondolier rows with grace and elegance and seems to make no effort while, with a single oar, in Venetian style (voga alla veneziana), he guides his gondola. He makes it glide on the water and makes his passangers dream, ‘ninnolati’ (lulled) by the calm swing of the gondola.
Vittore Carpaccio, "Miracle of the relic of the cross at Rialto", around 1496 , Accademia Gallery, Venice
Master the art of being a Gondolier: Unveiling the secrets of the Lagoon’s guardian
There are currently 440 professional gondoliers in Venice and around 180 “substitutes” or traineers that have obtained a licence to practise their profession through a long period of training includingpassing an oral and written exam. Since 2010 the competition has been open to women and their presence in the ranks is increasing gradually.
Gondoliers must study foreign languages, and the history, art and culture of Venice. They must also provide proof of swimming ability and lifesaving skills and demonstrate, with practical adjudicated by a commission of experienced gondoliers, dexterity to the oar. They have to be able to manage even the most daring of maneuvers in the most inaccessible of canals.
Historically, the professional figure was akin to that of a butler, an assistant, as welle as a confidant. They were men of discretion, trustworthy, fond of their work and madly in love with their Venice. Carlo Goldoni described them as ready to react if they heard bad things about their city. When Venice had a much greater number of inhabitants and the filling in of many canals (which took place in the nineteenth century) had not yet been realized, the gondola was one of the only means of transport. Gondoliers knew by heart the everchanging morphology of the lagoon and were essential to the connections that made Venice vibrant and alive. They were, and still are, considered the Lagoon’s guardians; with their charm and their mastery, combined with the magic of the city itself, they leave an indelible mark in everyone’s heart.
Aboard a gondola with the sound of lapping as its flat hull glides the canals, is one of the truest ways to unveil the secrets of this city and her gondoliers.
I’ve seen so many changes since I started practicing. The work has also changed because the number of tourists who come to Venice has increased. Although it is not easy we always try to create a nice relationship with our passengers, so as to leave a beautiful memory. The world is changing, the values of society are changing fast and we are very attached to traditions.
Adrian Tuchel "Piano piano"
Fascinating Trivia about the Typical Gondolier’s Attire
The clothing of Gondoliers has been governerd for centuries by a strict code, although this has changed across the years. In earlier centuries they wore red silk outfits with gold and silver embroidery and a velvet black hat, or silk jackets, white shoes, short breeches and a long red scarf. In those years, gondoliers’ attire was made specifically for them, by specialized tailors.
In the eighteen century the Senate of the Serenissima intervened to stop such excessive ostentation of clothing and to codify it.
Nowadays the Typical Gondolier’s Attire is a uniform that makes them instantly recognizable and enables their identification according to the various ‘stations’ where they work.
Their clothing can only be purchased in a few stores in the city and changes according to the seasons: cotton t-shirt or wool sweater with 2.5-wide horizontal stripes white and blue or white and red, black trousers, straw hat, black jacket with or without sleeves and a striped scarf in the cold season.
The figure of the gondolier is obviously an icon of the lagoon city, and for this reason has also become part of the Italian stereotypes. One need only think of the interpretation of Alberto Sordi (in a t-shirt with horizontal stripes) in “Venezia la luna e tu”, a 1958 film by Dino Risi inspired by the life of a gondolier and his love affairs.
The uniform of the Gondolier includes a shirt with regulated stripes of 2.5 cm black and white or white and red. The straw hat woven with colored ribbon as the interior decoration of the gondola
In a light atmosphere of vacation, the boundary between the Gondolier and the infamous Latin Lover becomes thin, and if you consider also this is the city of Giacomo Casanova the association is made and the stereotype packaged,eady to be used and exported.
Francesco Guardi, Gondole sulla laguna (Laguna grigia), 1761-1770, Milano, Museo Poldi Pezzoli
The story behind the black beauty of Venetian gondolas
Centuries ago, the gondolas were colorful and finely decorated. The nobility indulged in giving an original touch to their personal means of transport, so that they could express their status and individuality. If necessary, a cabin, or “Felze”, was placed in the center of the gondola that provided shelter from the weather as well as from prying eyes. Inside, brocades and precious silks transformed the gondola into a luxurious space.
The ‘Provveditori alle Pompe’ – officials controlling consumption and excess – imposed restraints on the gondolas in 1562. From this date black colour was chosen as the designated color of a gondola because it was considered elegant and suitable for a stately means of transport.
Today every gondolier can equip his gondola with decorations and ornaments that give it a unique and recognizable character, but he must obviously also comply with some precise rules. The organization is pyramidal and the so-called ‘Bancale‘ is responsible for each team. He organizes the work and checks all the rules of their professional code are respected, including the decorations of the gondola.
Gently floating long-shaped gondolas, elegantly dressed in black, finely decorated, glide on the water transporting you to the secrets of the city, with the “Ferro da gondola” leading the way. They are essential to the beauty and magic of Venice.
"Ferro da gondola" The metal profile fitted to the bow of each gondola. It symbolizes the sestieri of Venice with the Rialto Bridge and the Doge's hat