The origins of the gondola are lost in legend but a first official document that mentions the gondola dates from 1094, and bears the signature of the great Doge Vitale Faliero.
Today’s slender and elegant craft, which is made out of no fewer than 280 pieces, was born rough-and-ready but time has shaped her to be swifter, sharper, more agile and wonderfully elegant. ‘Luxury’ became, evidently, the keyword in gondola construction, and starting in 1562 the Serenissima republic’s authorities felt compelled to lay down laws establishing its colour (black only) and how this uniquely Venetian vessel could be embellished.
The penalties for violators were severe: crippling fines or even prison terms. There was leniency over the “felze”, an elegantly-furnished passenger cabin (with sofa, mirrors and lumiere) in the central part of the boat, to protect passengers from the lagoon’s hot and cold days, and from the prying
eyes of others. “Felze” derives from the ferns ( felci) which, in ancient times, were arranged on special hoops. (provided it was black), The gondola’s current design dates back to about 1600, when the squeraroli (gondola carpenters) introduced an innovation: to reduce water heeling (turning) without compromising on
length (about 11 m), they developed a “crescent” shape, lifting much of the hull (bow and stern) out of the water with an asymmetry of some 13 cm in the maximum beam (width).
Again to reduce heeling, they also moved the midline along an oblique line. Thus, under the thrust of the single oar raise d onto the port (left) stern (rear end) heels the craft to the right so that only part of the flat bottom glides through the water.
To keep longitudinal balance, an iron weight of about 15 kg was fitted to the bow which today also has a decorative meaning according to the Venetians: at the top, it represents the Doge’s ceremonial horn-like hat; in the lower part, the six districts or sestiere of the city including the Giudecca island; its
overall shape instead re-evokes the bends of the Grand Canal.
Today there are about 600 gondolas, almost exclusively used by the 433 accredited gondoliers and a few privileged owners and lovers of Venetian rowing.
In his Cronachetta written at the turn of the fifteenth and sixteenth century, Marin Sanudo recounts that the first gondoliers were once like “black Saracens or other families”, who were considered almost slaves; and indeed, it is said that in the ancient past, black people were used to row the primitive
gondolas. Some old paintings confirm this. It is certain, however, that black slaves were used everywhere in large numbers in those times. But with the rise of the gondola’s popularity, the gondoliers became an integral part of the society, enjoying the privileges of a cast. They acquired more importance than other
groups of workers and it was in fact through their daily contacts with the nobility that they gradually became a liaison between the powerful and the people.
The thirteen images we have chosen tell all the moments of the second half of the last century, and collect fragments of a Venice which is intimate and, for many, previously unpublished. The photos belong to the Cameraphoto historical archive, granted to us by kind permission for this
*Traduzione di Ivor Coward*next