THE GONDOLA

The Gondola is the traditional Venetian rowing boat that has become a symbol and icon of Venice. Before the coming of engine-propelled boats, the Gondola was the most suitable boat used in Venice for the transportation of people thanks to its flat keel that prevented the boat to get beached in the shallow waters of the canals. Nowadays there are about 500 gondolas circulating in Venice but in the 16th century there were about 10,000.

Venetian gondola

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Etymology

Etymologists do not agree on the origin of the name “gondola”: some say that it comes from ancient Greek “Kuntelas” which is a joint word from “kontos” (short) and “helas” (shuttle). Others reckon that “gondola” comes from the latin word cymbula (small boat) or perhaps concha (shell). The first official document that mentions a gondulam is a Decree signed by Doge Vitale Falier in 1094.

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Size and weight

A typical gondola is 10,85 m long and 1,40 m wide and weighs from 350 to 500 kg. The vessel is made up of 280 different pieces from 8 different types of wood (oak, walnut, fir, elm, mahogany, cherry, elm and lime). The making of a gondola takes quite a long time as the timber has to be left to season for about 1 year

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Gondola shipyards

SqueroThe gondola was and still is manufactured in small shipyards called “Squeri”; until the 15th century most of them used to be located along the Grand Canal but apparently they hampered navigation and were therefore moved to the Arsenal following a Senate Decree issued in 1433.

Nowadays only 5 “Squeri” are still functioning, one is located in San Trovaso, Dorsoduro District (picture above) and is property of the Municipality of Venice; the other one, Squero Tramontin, is also located in Dorsoduro (Ognissanti).

2 other private "squeri" are located in the Giudecca District (Squero Crea and Squero Costantini - Dei Rossi); Squero "San Giuseppe" is located in the "Castello" District.

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Asymmetry

The initial design of the gondola evolved during the centuries in order to develop the most effective and efficient propulsion system and allow gondoliers to make as little effort as possible. The main parameter on which the design of gondolas depends on is the single oar propulsion: as the method of propulsion is asymmetrical, the design of the vessel has to be asymmetrical too and  in order to compensate and keep the vessel straight.The stroke of a single oar naturally directs any vessel to the opposite direction of the oar push. Furthermore the oar of a gondola is always located on the right side whereas the gondolier stands up on the left side facing the prow. This is why the hull of the gondola is not straight as in any other boat, but curves towards the right; The left side is a little longer and wider than the right one, so that an unloaded gondola would slightly tilt to the right;  such asymmetrical shape counterbalances both the weight of the gondolier, who is standing on the left and the forward push of the single oar from the right side that would otherwise direct the vessel to the left. Furthermore, the right side of the gondola must sink a little deeper in the water than the left side, in order to move the center of gravity to the right and provide better balance and control as the gondolier stands on the left side.

Gondola asymmetry

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Rowing technique

The Gondola is usually steered by 1 oarman who rows with a forward stroke followed by a compensating return stroke. The gondolier stands up in the back of the vessel on the left side, facing the bowThe gondolier put the oar on a special holder called “forcola”, made of walnut, that allows for 8 different positions of the oar. The “forcola” is always installed on the right side of the vessel in order to allow the slight drag of each backward stroke to get the prow back to forward direction. The forward stroke is the pushing stroke: the gondolier sinks the oar vertically into the water and pushes on the forcola. The return stroke quickly brings the oar back to the initial position: the oar is still underwater and its front edge is kept tilted downward in order to use its resistance to adjust the course. The gondoliers’ rowing technique is very peculiar and apparently it is not used anywhere else in the world. The Gondolier stands up in the back of the vessel and faces the prow: this rowing position comes from the need to be able to see where there is enough water depth and avoid being hampered in the more shallow canals of the city or beached or in the sandbanks of the lagoon. The gondola is built with a flat hull and no keel in order to allow gondoliers to navigate safely also in shallow water; the lack of a deep hull and keel makes the vessel light enough to be steerable by one person only.In the small available space of the narrow canals of Venice it was impossible to adopt the 2 crossed oars stroke due also to the intense traffic of various types of boats; therefore Venetians developed a very peculiar one oar stroke technique for the gondola to be steerable by one person; one person cannot row and maneuver the helm by himself so gondola builders came up with the peculiar asymmetric design and tilting of the vessel that allow gondoliers to move straight forward with no need to use a helm.The gondoliers’ rowing technique is very efficient: it has been calculated that a Gondolier can transport 3 people (plus about 400 kg of the vessel) with the same effort that it takes to walk the same distance. It is remarkable that standing in the same position a gondolier can do any maneuver he needs to do without having to move from his spot: start, stop, steering, 90° angle turnings, lateral motion and reverse.

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The "Ferro"

The typical metal “comb” called placed at the bow is called “ferro” (iron). Despite the name it is actually made from brass, stainless steel or aluminum. The “Ferro” serves as counterweight to compensate for the rower who stands near the stern but it is also a symbolic decoration that represents a few peculiarities of Venice: the “S” shape represent the Grand Canal; the forward 6 comb teeth represent the 6 Districts of Venice; the 1 backward tooth represents the island of Giudecca; the upper part represents the Doge’s cap; the arch shaped break between the top and the upper tooth represent the Rialto Bridge. Some gondoliers put 3 friezes between the six teeth to represent the three main Venetian islands: Burano, Murano and Torcello.

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Apartments to rent in Venice Italy

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