Shape and Style
Gondolas have been plying the canals of Venice since before the 15 century. Their shape has slowly evolved to become what is considered one of the most beautiful watercraft in the world. With a heritage based originally on transport, the vessel and its gondolier ascended the early Venetian social order due to the fact that many of the nobility’s secrets were shared by the gondoliers.
Although gracefully raked at either end, the shape of the gondola doesn’t appear that much different to a large dory or canoe. In the early days this was the case but in the late 1800’s Domenico Tramontin developed the asymmetrical gondola we see today.
This shape made it easier for the gondolier to row from one side of the vessel. In typical Italian style, the rhythmic, graceful stroke of the gondolier, uninterrupted by shifting the oar to the other side, added to the beauty and style of the vessel.
The Tramontin boat yard is one of the few remaining gondola builders left in Venice. Ironically, the perfection of the asymmetrical Tramontin design coincided with the introduction of steam powered vessels at the end of the 1800’s. This change saw the decline in gondola numbers from around 10,000 to the current fleet of just under 500
Looking along the gondola shows the asymmetrical shape of the hull.
The sculpted wooden post that supports the oar has also evolved over the years. This beautiful organic shape is purely functional, allowing the gondolier to perform various manoeuvres, changes in speed and changes in direction. The post, called the forcola, Is carved by a skilled craftsman, and being a very valuable object, is usually removed when the gondola is moored for any length of time.
The ferro is the large metal ornament on the bow of all gondolas. Originally made from iron, it acted as a counter weight to the gondolier. Today various alloys are used for the ferro. Its curved shape represents the curve of the Grand canal and the six horizontal bars represent the six districts of Venice.
The 475 gondoliers in Venice are all licensed and trained. Most licenses belong to families so there is a tradition of fathers passing the skill on to their sons. Gondolas are less important as a means of transport these days, but their style and romantic heritage have made them an Italian icon and the endless stream of tourists through the city guarantee their future.
Author – John Lovett