The gondola is the oldest and best known Venetian boat in the world. The name derives from the Latin “cuncula” or shell and is 11 m long and 350 kg heavy, but easily maneuvered with a single oar by the gondolier. It is built in the “squero”, the typical Venetian shipyard for rowing boats, and is made of eight different types of wood, but there are also metal elements, or the “iron” of the bow with the characteristic six-tooth comb that represents the six districts of Venice.
The bow iron aims to protect the bow from possible collisions and to balance the weight of the gondolier. Its weight ranges from 10 kg upwards depending on the metal used. The iron of the gondola has numerous decorations that embellish the splendid and elegant boat of the Venice lagoon. But what do the symbols of the prow represent?
Its “S” shape should simulate the development of the Grand Canal, under the main blade it has a comb formed by 6 prongs that recall the 6 “sestieri” in which Venice is divided. The “sestieri” are the districts of Venice, divided precisely into six main areas: Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce.
A sort of prong that extends back towards the center of the gondola indicates the Giudecca and the “Doge’s hat”, the bow above the tallest prong of the comb, represents the Rialto Bridge. In the more recent gondolas, there are also 3 finishes called “leaves” and placed between the 6 front bars and representing the 3 most important islands of the Venetian lagoon: Murano, Burano and Torcello.
The characteristic black color comes from an order of the Magistrate who aimed to reduce the magnificence with which nobles and rich people decorated their boats. But it is also a general characteristic of all Venetian boats, due to the use of pitch as a waterproofing. In 1580 about 10,000 gondolas could be counted, today in the lagoon there are no more than 500.
The gondola is currently used mainly for tourism purposes, but also for ceremonies such as weddings and funerals, as well as a ferry to transport people from one bank of the Grand Canal to the other. For this last task the so-called gondolóni or small boats are used, particularly capacious and moved by two rowers, one in the stern and the other in the bow. The custom is very old (the first documents that regulate the operation of the ferries date back to the mid-fourteenth century) and the transit points such as the Ca ’Rezzonico or the Ca’ d’Oro are indicated by the name of the calli (Calle del traghetto).
Another use of the gondola is the sporting one, in regattas dedicated to the boats of the Venetian tradition, like the famous Historical Regatta. In these races there are also small gondolas of two rowers called “gondolini”.