Few objects symbolise Venice better than the gondola, which Lord Byron famously described as "just like a coffin clapt in a canoe".
This curious (flat-bottomed) craft, unique to Venice, has evolved over the centuries to suit the demands of navigating the narrow and labyrinthine waterways of the city. Nowadays, each gondola is uniform in design, weighing 1,500 lbs (700 kgs), comprising 280 components and using eight different types of wood (lime, larch, oak, fir, cherry, walnut, elm and mahogany). It is exactly 10.87 metres long (35ft 6ins) and 1.42 metres wide (4ft 6ins), with the left side 24 cms (10 ins) longer than the right. Since the 16th century the gondola has always been black in colour.
The modern gondola is propelled by a single oarsman, the gondolier, who stands facing the bow and rows with a forward stroke. The gondolier uses a single oar (remo), which is made from beech, and the gondola's asymmetry in length (which only dates back to the 19th century) checks its natural tendency to turn to the left following the stroke of the oar. The bespoke forcola (row-lock) is carved out of a single piece of walnut and enables the gondolier to make up to eight distinct manoeuvres.
The metal prow (ferro di prua) acts as a counter-balance to the weight of the gondolier. Its six teeth (rebbi or pettini), or prongs, are thought to represent the six districts (sestieri) into which Venice is divided, while the prong which juts out to the back may represent the island of Giudecca. (No one knows for certain!). Some prows have three additional prongs, which are more ornate and may represent the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.
The rear end of a gondola is marked by the ferro di poppa, which is hinged to enable the boat to pass under low bridges when the tide is high.
Until the 1930s, the gondola was fitted with a small cabin (felze), which served to protect passengers from the weather and also from the prying eyes of onlookers. The windows of the felze could be closed with shutters, the original Venetian blinds.
This was, of course, the type of gondola Lord Byron was describing in his poem Beppo, A Venetian Story:
'It glides along the water looking blackly,
Just like a Coffin clapt in a canoe,
Where none can make out what you say or do.'
The canals of Venice were once home to as many as 10,000 gondolas; today there are just over 400.
Blogging about Venice:
its art, history & culture.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England.
Since 200I I have been living in Italy, where I run private tours of Florence, Rome &
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