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The History of Gondola Boats

    Origins

    • The documented history of the gondola began in 1094 when Doge Vito Falier issued a charter that said citizens of Venice were free to build their own gondolas. However, the gondolas of that era were different than the ones of today, symmetrical and propelled by two rowers, one in the front and one in the back. As their use began to become more common among less-wealthy Venetians, they evolved into their present form, because it was more economical to operate them with a single rower. They also got longer to accommodate more passengers, as their width couldn't be increased because they needed to fit in the canals of Venice. The asymmetrical shape came about to counter the tendency of the boat to turn in one direction because the gondolier rows only on one side of the vessel. By the last decade of the 15th century, gondolas appeared in paintings by Italian artists Bellini and Carpaccio, with the gondoliers in these artworks rowing the vessels in the same manner as they do today.

    Design Changes

    • In the 16th century, gondolas were adorned with ornate ironwork and other ornamentation typical of the Baroque period, while also undergoing changes of a more practical nature. The stern, or rear, of the boats was widened, while the rocker, or curvature of the boat from bow (front) to stern, as seen from the side, was increased, to give the boat better position in the water and the gondolier a better position for steering. Gondolas evolved to become asymmetrical late in the 19th century, which made rowing and steering them easier on the gondolier. Gondolas were formerly equipped with a "felze" or "felse," which was a small, removable wooden cabin, used to provide privacy as well as warmth for passengers during the winter. It sometimes included a door and sliding windows with Venetian blinds or curtains, as well as a charcoal burner.

    Decoration

    • Gondola owners used to decorate their vessels by painting them bright colors and upholstering them with luxurious fabric and materials, with each owner trying to outdo the others, until the Venetian senate passed a law decreeing that all gondolas must be painted black. This custom remains today.

    Construction

    • A traditional gondola weighed about 400 kilograms and was constructed from eight different types of wood: larch, fir, oak, elm, cherry, mahogany, linden and walnut, comprising 280 separate pieces. Today's versions are likely to be constructed entirely from marine plywood.

    Popularity

    • There were an estimated 10,000 gondolas being piloted around Venice during the 1600s but their numbers declined when steam-powered boats started to be used in Venice in the late 19th century.

    Modern Threats to Tradition

    • Michael Day of The Independent reported April 8, 2010, that Giuseppe Gioia's Cantieri Navali shipyards, in the southern port of Brindisi, Italy, was producing low-cost, easy-maintenance fiberglass versions of the iconic boat for far less than the estimated $34,000 it cost to produce a traditional wooden gondola. Aldo Reato, the head of the Venice Ente Gondola Association, said gondoliers would oppose fiberglass gondolas. "The idea of a plastic gondola is unthinkable and I'm sure the whole world would agree," said Reato.

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