Gondolas Then & Now

          “We amused ourselves by untying the gondolas moored before private houses, which then drifted with the current to one side of the Grand Canal or the other, and making merry over the curses the gondoliers would call down on us the next morning when they did not find their gondolas where they had moored them” (Trask, Vol. 2, 185). Giacomo Casanova’s earliest mention of the gondola related how he and friends played pranks on the city’s gondoliers. To a gondolier, however, such a stunt is considered the most evil transgression. Casanova’s History of my Life provides numerous details about this particularly Venetian vessel that shed light on our understanding of its changes.

          Gondolas in the eighteenth century were quite different from those that came before and those that followed. The earliest lagoon boats generally had shallow bottoms so as to travel easily where water was not deep; they do not include a keel but are instead steered by the gondolier’s oar placement in the eight different positions of the forcola or oarlock. Contrary to some suppositions, the gondola is rowed, never poled. In Casanova’s day, the boat’s prow and stern did not rise as highly from the water, and the hull was typically shorter and wider than today. Gondolas were also symmetrical in the past, meaning both sides were the same length, though they did list to the starboard (right) side due to the gondolier’s rowing. This design was not changed until the late nineteenth century after innovations by Domenico Tramontin, considered the “father” of the modern gondola. Nowadays the left side is approximately ten inches longer than the right. Furthermore, the gondola’s ferro, the ironwork at its prow, used to stand much higher and be of various designs rather than the quite uniform look seen today.

            Yet these variations have little bearing on Casanova’s usage of gondolas. The felze is the principal design difference between then and now that bears mention. In very early gondolas from the twelfth century, the felze consisted of a wooden framework covered with branches and ferns or felci, from which the word felze comes. These can be clearly seen in Vittore Carpaccio’s 1494 painting Miracle of the Relics of the True Cross, which is also considered the first painting to depict the gondola. Before the early Sumptuary Laws of 1299 and expanded laws in the first half of the seventeenth century, the felze was usually covered in rich brocades and silks. But by order of the Provveditori Sopra le Pompe, these fabrics were banned and were replaced by rascia, a rough black wool. (A reminder of this can be seen in street names such as the Calle delle Rasse just east of the Palazzo Ducale, where this fabric was sold.)

            A wooden frame supported the rascia, and the fabric panel, called the baticopo, could be lowered to conceal the gondola’s occupants. However, this practice was banned so that prostitutes could not ply their trade within the gondola. The baticopo must remain fastened up on its frame. More luxurious gondolas, usually those that were privately owned by nobles, often had a wooden felze with glass or shuttered windows (the first Venetian blinds). The interiors were lined with fabric and often included other luxuries such as hand warmers. Although Casanova never specifies the type of felze covering Senator Bragadin’s gondolas, they may have been the more costly wooden styles. Nevertheless, Casanova mentions in an early encounter in his gondola with Pier Capretta and Maria Ottaviana that he was only able to take certain liberties with her “under cover of darkness,” indicating that a cloth baticopo with its sides fastened up (as well as the presence of Capretta) prevented him from pursuing further advances.

             In a memorable incident where Casanova’s gondola is struck by a storm near the Isola di San Michele, between Murano and the Rio dei Mendicanti, the gondola most likely had a cloth felze. As the winds worsened and one of the two gondoliers was knocked temporarily off the gondola, Casanova implores them to rip off the felze in order to gain control of the boat. He throws coins in the hull as they comply. These were hired gondoliers, most likely men who owned their own boat and would need compensation for the loss of the felze. As a final note, the lighter cloth felze was often used in the summer months, while the heavier wooden enclosure was put on the gondola for the winter.

            Other important changes since the eighteenth century involve the gondoliers and boat ownership. Nowadays, only about 500 gondolas exist, generally owned by the licensed gondoliers who ferry tourists around the city. They are strictly regulated by a fraglia or fraternity and must adhere to laws, regulations, and tariffs as well as pay taxes and obtain licenses. A very few specialized gondolas are privately owned and are used for weddings, funerals, or regatte (races). Only five squeri or gondola boatyards still exist compared to the dozens that can be seen on Jacopo de Barbari’s fifteenth century woodcut of Venice.

            According to diaries and letters, such as Marino Sanudo or Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an estimated eight to ten thousand gondolas filled Venice’s canals in the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries (and there were more canals then, too, before many were filled in to create the rii tera). Originally, boatmen or barcaroli (sometimes spelled barcaiolli) took up the trade of ferrying people to desired locations or across the Grand Canal. Thus were established the traghetto or gondola stations. The traghetto refers to both the boat itself as well as the station where one may hire a boat for passage. These traghetto gondolas were usually owned by one to four men who hired themselves out. The city of Venice also required by law that this service be available at all times, as Casanova specifically mentions in Volume 4 when he wishes to leave Murano late at night and finds the traghetto unmanned. Though Casanova consistently refers to these men as “gondoliers,” the more specific Venetian term of the time was barcaroli a guadagno (Vittoria 95). Casanova mentions this form of travel when he is escorted to Sant’Andrea by a soldier, and we see a further example when his grandmother Marzia Farussi transports Casanova from San Samuele to Murano to be treated for his nosebleeds.

            In fact, there were three kinds of traghetti, and Casanova’s memoirs show examples of two quite clearly. Though he never specifically mentions the traghetto da parada or traghetto del bagattino, so named because it cost one bagattino to be ferried across the Grand Canal, this is the one kind of traghetto that exists to this day. The remaining full-time locations are at Santa Sofia, San Toma, Santa Maria del Giglio, with part-time service offered at Dogana, San Marcuola, and San Samuele. For longer distances around the city’s canals, passengers hired the traghetto da soldo; a soldo was about the equivalent of a penny at that time. These are the traghetto gondole mentioned in the previous paragraph. In order to reach the mainland, the traghetto de viazzi was employed, as Casanova and Father Balbi did after their escape from the Leads. The word traghetto comes from “transgerere” meaning “to go beyond” (Vittorio 77), and these traghetto de viazzi traveled as far as Fusina, Mestre, San Giuliano, Padua, Treviso, and Portoguaro.

            Casanova also mentions on numerous occasions taking the traghetto to and from Murano. This specific traghetto station was located in the arcade under the Palazzo Morosini del Giardino across the canal from the Campo San Canzian. Once when Casanova was returning from visiting C.C. at Murano, he suspected he was being followed and thus disembarked here to elude the spy. The wall still bears the sign Sotoportego del Traghetto. Casanova often changed gondolas at various traghetto stations in order to foil suspected spies, and as there were numerous stations, this was easy to accomplish.

            As was previously stated, the Venetian State was required to provide a traghetto crossing at all times, when to Casanova’s dismay no one was available to take him from Murano back to Venice after he left visiting the nuns at the Santa Maria degli Angeli convent. Besides being operational, the traghetto stations were specifically required to also keep a lighted shrine to the Madonna or other patron saint, to decorate the station with vines or flowers, and to keep on hand materials for reviving those in danger of drowning. Traghetto fares were regulated city-wide through the fraglia dei barcaroli, a kind of brotherhood or guild. In Casanova’s day, only the traghetto locations existed, though there were far more of them since there were more canals and fewer bridges across the Grand Canal. However, in the nineteenth century stazi were added, which are stations near traghetto locations where gondoliers attract customers. For example, near the Santa Sofia traghetto and manned by its gondoliers are stazi at the Rio de la Madalena, Santi Apostoli, Ponte San Giovanni Grisostomo, and Santa Maria Formosa, to name just a few. Other larger stazi today include Ferrovia, Carbon (near Rialto), Bacino Orseolo, San Moise, Molo di San Marco, and Daniele.

            The other principal type of gondolier in Casanova’s era was the gondoliere de casada who were employed by nobles to work privately for their households. Gondoliers dressed in livery, in the colors of the house, which were likewise reflected in the stripes on the pali or poles where gondolas were tied up at the water gate. Also delineated in the Provveditori alle Pompe’s March 25, 1584, decree was the provision that gondoliers’ uniforms must be of simple cloth and cut, with limited use of silk or ornamentation; for example, buttons down the leg were permissible. Casanova mentions the personal gondolier at his disposal after Senator Bragadin essentially adopts him and provides this service as well as rooms and a stipend. This gondolier is at Casanova’s beck and call to deliver him and C.C. or others wherever he may wish to go, including other islands. However, Casanova is still cautious, knowing a gondolier’s penchant for gossip, and does not employ his own gondolier once he begins the affair with M.M.. He then only trusts the Abbe de Bernis’ gondoliers, who are well-paid for their discretion and silence. We see examples of gondoliere de casada employed by Countess Seguro and other nobles.

            We have commentary from Marino Sanudo in his diaries about the cost of gondolas in the early sixteenth century. According to him, an accessorized gondola cost fifteen ducats, with maintenance and gondolier costs above and beyond that. In comparison, the gondola was much more expensive to own than a horse. Despite this cost, gondole de casada were most often rowed by two gondoliers, particularly if they ferried more than a single passenger. Casanova notes calling for a second oarsman to be added when he is in great haste, such as when he learns that C.C. is hemorrhaging and he rushes to the Ghetto to procure linen for her. Nowadays, the gondola is always rowed by a single gondolier (excepting in races or on the wider traghetto gondola). Because of Tramontin’s asymmetrical design and higher prow and stern, propelling a gondola became much easier for a single rower. It is believed that this was also a cost-saving change after the fall of the Republic when the city’s economic health had greatly diminished.

            Altogether, this seemingly timeless vessel has undergone few but noteworthy changes since its inception. Casanova’s memoirs helped to highlight these changes, giving us concrete examples of their former usage and design. His memoirs also immortalize the gondola, as he did so many other features of Venetian and European life.