By Gene Openshaw
Two hundred years ago, there were 10,000 gondolas in Venice. Although the aristocracy preferred horses to boats through the early Middle Ages, beginning in the 14th century, when horses were outlawed from the streets of Venice, the noble class embraced gondolas as a respectable form of transportation.
The boats became the way to get around the lagoon's islands. To navigate over the countless shifting sandbars, the boats were flat (no keel or rudder) and the captains stood up to see.
Today there are only 500 gondolas, used only by tourists. The boats are prettier, but they work the same way they always have. Single oars are used both to propel and to steer the boats, which are built curved a bit on one side so that an oar thrusting from that side sends the gondola in a straight line.
These sleek yet ornate boats typically are about 35 feet long and five feet wide, and weigh about 1,100 pounds. They travel about three miles an hour (same as walking) and take the same energy to row as it would to walk. They're always painted black (six coats) — the result of a 17th-century law a Doge enacted to eliminate competition between nobles for the fanciest rig. But each has unique upholstery, trim, and detailing, such as the squiggly-shaped, carved-wood oarlock (forcula) and metal "hood ornament" (ferro). The six horizontal lines and curved top of the ferro represent Venice's six sestieri (districts) and the doge's funny cap. All in all, it takes about two months to build a gondola.
The boats run about €35,000–50,000, depending on your options (a/c, cup holders, etc). Every 40 days, the boat's hull must be treated with a new coat of varnish to protect against a lagoon-dwelling creature that eats into wood. A gondola lasts about 15 years, after which it can be refinished (once), to last another 10 years.
You can see the most picturesque gondola workshop in Venice in the Accademia neighborhood (walk down the Accademia side of the canal called Rio San Trovaso; as you approach Giudecca Canal you'll see the beached gondolas on your right across the canal). The workmen, traditionally from Italy's mountainous Dolomite region (because they need to be good with wood), maintain this refreshingly alpine-feeling little corner of Venice.
There are about 400 licensed gondoliers. When one dies, the license passes to his widow. And do the gondoliers sing, as the popular image has it? My mom asked our gondolier that very question, and he replied: "Madame, there are the lovers and there are the singers. I do not sing."
Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Venice guidebook