Guest Challenge: Symbolism
The Venetian Gondola
The shiny, sleek keel-less vessels navigating the winding waterways of Venice, might not be the choice of transport of its diminished local population any longer, but they remain the most familiar visual identifiers of the city. Cliched symbols inextricably linked to its cultural identity. Perhaps more universally recognised than its monumental components.
While a selfie on a romantic cruise is a mandatory ‘must do’ on most Venice itineraries, few tourists are aware of the gondola’s history or the symbolism inherent in its design.
The earliest known ancestors of the present gondole were large, multi-oared boats with little ornamentation. By the fifteenth century they shrank considerably in size, acquiring vibrant awnings, ornate seating and plush upholstery. Within a century, they evolved into sleeker, sumptuous and colourful showpieces of wealthy aristocrats, until a 17th century egalitarian Doge’s edict decreed the uniform black enamel and the precise dimensions of 10.87m by 1.42 m. The only change since has been the lengthening of the left side by 24cm to counterbalance the gondoliers weight and rowing action. This late 19th century refinement gives the craft its characteristic list along with its current fluidity of motion.
Each gondola assembled from 280 components is handcrafted from eight types of natural wood. Each is fitted to individual gondoliers, with unique and detachable rowlocks – forcola – carved to the gondoliers personal specifications. And each incorporates visual metaphors in its elegant design embellishments.
The sinuous shape of the heavy iron prow the ferro di prora, is said to mimic the Grand Canal itself. Its distinctive blade, the Doge’s cap. The six prongs (rebbi) beneath, depict the six sestieri (neighbourhoods), and the lone prong opposite (risso di poopa), the island of Giudecca. The other iconic symbol of the city, the Rialto bridge, is represented by the tiny arch between the ‘cap’ and the prongs!
With the number of vessels plying the canals down to a few hundred from some 10,000 at the end of the 16th century, and just three squeri (shipwright) working overtime to replace aged craft, this most beautiful boat in the world faces the risk of fading into the pages of history. Regardless of the fact that it only ferries tourists today, Venice would not be Venice without its gondole.