Conversations with a Gondolier

The sleek, black gondola is Venice‘s most well-known symbol. Hand-crafted down to the smallest detail, this ancient method of transportation is often viewed as a try-before-you-die experience for tourists. But what about the man behind the oar?

Today, there are 425 gondoliers who ply the waters of the Venetian lagoon, and, contrary to appearances, they are not just pretty faces with great bodies. Competition for the medieval occupation is fierce, and licenses are limited. If selected, gondoliers go through intensive training for about a year, studying the history, architecture, landmarks and lagoon system of Venice, in addition to English, French and Venetian languages — not to mention the practical method of learning how to master the difficult boats that are sometimes compared to “fillies.”

The gondolier stands facing the bow, holding a long, single oar. He rows one stroke forward, then a backward stroke, performing a graceful ballet. The gondola is asymmetrical, the left side longer than the right, so that it doesn’t veer to the left on the forward stroke. To qualify for this extraordinary job, gondoliers must also spend a period of time as an apprentice, and pass a comprehensive exam.

Simon, tanned, blond and handsome, Venetian-born and -bred, has been rowing a gondola for about ten years. “It was hard and difficult at first, until I understood the work. Now, I love it. It is a beautiful job that allows me to be free. The gondola you see is just a tiny piece of Venice’s history, a story that starts back in the year 421. It is a story that is 1500 years old. People escaped here from the mainland, fleeing from invaders. They settled first on the island of Torcello. The gondola evolved over the centuries as a way to travel around the waters of the lagoon and the canals. It is a boat designed specifically to fit its environment.”

All gondolas are black by law, but every gondola is unique – different colored tapestries, various embellishments – reflecting the personality of the gondolier.

Simon must have done well on his comprehensive exam. He explained that the gondoliers belong to different cooperatives. When asked if there was competition between the co-ops, he grinned and said, “Competition is inherent in all men.” Gondoliers stand up because if they sat down and rowed backwards, they wouldn’t be able to see anything. Like the gondola itself, the singular method of rowing is a skill that has developed over time. And yes, gondoliers have a daily routine. “We arrive in the morning and clean the boats, just like a shop. Wash the wood, mop the floor. Then we wait for people to walk by. The work comes to us.” Some gondoliers christen their boats with names like “Sofia” and “Dogaressa; others travel incognito. All gondolas are black by law, but every gondola is unique — different colored tapestries, various embellishments — reflecting the personality of the gondolier.

When asked what section of Venice he lived in, Simon frowned. “I don’t live in Venice anymore. Now I live in Mestre, on the mainland. They pushed all the Venetians out to Mestre. Mestre is not Venice. It is impossible for the average Venetian to buy a house in Venice. People who have rented for years are being forced out of their homes. Everything is so expensive, and is being bought by foreigners. It is a serious problem. There were about 120,000 people living here back in the ’80s, now we are down to a little more than 59,000 residents. Venetians are like American Indians, and Venice is our Indian reservation. To live here, you must love this city because so many sacrifices must be made.”

A gondolier forced to live in Mestre, on solid ground? What about their historic reputation: that all gondoliers are wealthy, and spend their free time smoking, playing cards and seducing female tourists? Other gondoliers joined the conversation and confirmed what Simon said. “Business is down. Tourists arrive here and expect to have a Las Vegas gondola ride,” said the tall, dark and elegant Stefano. “The only reason I have a house in Venice is because I bought it back in the 1980s when I worked in a hardware store. It took me ten years to earn the money. Today it would be impossible.” Massimo confirmed, “We are the last spoke on the wheel. Tourists arrive in Venice. They must have a room at a hotel. They must eat. For some, a gondola ride is mandatory, but for many, when times are tough, it is something they can do without.” Another gondolier chimed in: “There is a deliberate attempt to drive Venetians out of Venice. It’s a real war.”

So much for the economic recovery. You know times are tough when the gondoliers are having trouble getting their oars wet.

Cat Bauer has lived in Venice, Italy since 1998. A former contributor to the International Herald Tribune’s Italian supplement, Italy Daily, she is the author of Harley, Like a Person and Harley’s Ninth. Read her blog on Red Room.

[Photos: Flickr | JonRawlinson; RamblingTraveler]