In 1818, Percy Shelley wrote: “These gondolas are the most beautiful and convenient boats in the world. They are finely carpeted and furnished with black and painted black. The couches on which you lean are extraordinarily soft, and are so disposed as to be the most comfortable to those who lean or sit. The windows have either Venetian plate glass, flowered or Venetian blinds or blinds of black cloth to shut out the sight.”
Covered gondolas are a rare sight in Venice, but the boat described by Shelley then is similar to the modern version of the gondola we see today. The first solid reference to gondolas was in 1094. By the 1600s, an estimated 10,000 gondolas could be found in the canals of Venice. Gondolas have a very shallow draft, making them ideal for navigating the canals and lagoons of Venice. For centuries they were the primary means of water transport. Their numbers only dropped later in the 1800s with advent of steam-powered vessels.
The gondola described by Shelley was likely one equipped with a ‘felze’. It was a small cabin that could be installed in the cooler or wet weather. It was also more private and often contained a small charcoal heater.
Today’s gondolas are rooted in the same strong tradition of boat-building that has been around for centuries but there have been attempts at some short-cuts. Many boats, until recently were made with marine plywood. It’s more durable, easier to work with and more economical. It seems though that plywood has now been banned on account of traditionalists. And, an effort to have fibreglass gondolas accepted seems to be (I hope) a complete failure. For those expecting the gondolier’s undivided attention as he navigates you through the congested waterways, don’t be surprised if you slow down on occasion. But it might not be because of the heavy traffic. It’s not easy talking on a cellphone and propelling a gondola!
A traditionally built gondola costs $35,000. They weigh about 1, 500 lbs. and are made with cherry, elm, fir, larch, linden, mahogany, oak and walnut. By law, gondolas must be black, though on a recent trip I saw bright red and yellow versions at dock. Decorations are also apparently regulated and limited to sea lions, dragons, dolphins, mermaids and other creatures of the sea. The length of a gondola is standardized at 35.5ft. They are 4ft, 6ins wide, narrow enough for two to pass each other in the narrow canals of Venice.
Gondolas are synonymous with Venice. Some might say that no trip is complete without a ride in the ubiquitous boats. However, as a photographer, I’d much rather photograph them from a distance. Most gondoliers wear their distinctive and traditional hats and shirts. They know they are the constant subject of photographers.
Gondoliers have a website that explains their official rates. Find rates at: GondolaVenezia.it. It’s not cheap, by any means. At the time of writing, prices were approximately 80 Euros for a 40 minute ride for up to 6 persons. And that’s during the daytime. At night, rates rise to 100 Euros for a 40 minute ride. If you have your heart set on a romantic ride for two, that’s the rate you’ll pay. But if you hang about the popular spots where rides commence, you’ll find fellow travelers looking for others to share the cost of the ride. Don’t be surprised if gondoliers ask for more than these posted rates. So, settle on the price and length of the ride at the outset. Also, check the time of the start of your ride and confirm it with your gondolier. Why? Gondoliers’ watches can run suspiciously fast!