For anyone who loves river cruises, Italy provides the perfect backdrop for discovering this beautiful country by waterway. And nowhere is this more true than in the watery city of Venice.
The sleek black gondolas are as iconic a sight in Venice as St Mark’s Basilica or the Doge’s Palace. While today they are used, almost exclusively, by tourists and visitors, their history is entwined with the city, as they were once one of the main forms of transport around its labyrinth of canals and waterways.
The History of the Venetian Boat
We know that as early as the eleventh century gondolas were used here as a mode of transport because they are mentioned in official correspondence in 1094, although it is not clear how long they had already been in use at this time. Some scholars date them to the 600s, just 200 years after the city’s foundation.
By the thirteenth century the vessels were considerably bigger than today. Propelled by up to 12 oars they were used by the wealthy elite as transport or for river cruises.Italy was booming in the fifteenth and sixteenth century, and in 1500 a map of its most vibrant mercantile city depicted the numerous gondolas on the canals.
At this time these boats became such an important sight along the city’s waterways that their wealthy private owners began to have them ornately decorated as a sign of their affluence. However, by 1562 this trend had got so out of hand with lavish adornments which threatened the safety of the boats, that officials banned such practises. Since this time the boats have been uniformly painted black with the only decoration being the curved tail, metal seahorses and a six-pronged prow (said to relate to the six districts of Venice).
It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that it became the single piloted craft of today, although at this time it also included a small covering or ‘cabin’ to provide privacy to its occupants as they enjoyed their river cruises. Italy’s gonola heritage stopped evolving, however, in the twentieth century when Venetian officials forbade any further modifications to the design.
Made to Measure
Today the boats are made to an exact specification which allows them to be termed as ‘gondolas’ and to be driven by one of a limited number of licenced gondoliers.
Each vessel is uniformly made from 280 handcrafted wooden elements – the woods used include mahogany, oak, walnut, larch, fir, lime, cherry and elm. The distinctive long oar is made from beech and the rowlock is carved from walnut. Each one weighs 700kg and is exactly 10.87m in length, 1.42m in width.
An interesting and distinctive feature of the Venetian craft is that one side is longer than the other, this is to balance the weight of the gondolier and gives it the distinctive tilt that is emblematic of the river cruises. Italy’s history is poignantly experienced with a gondola ride, allowing you the time and tranquillity to drink in the sights of this Venice, and the wonderful architecture of its famous canals, buildings and bridges. With so much to offer, it’s well worth taking the time to absorb it all at a leisurely pace wending along the country’s beautiful waterways.
Paul Newman is the Marketing and E-Systems Executive for European Waterways, the UK's most respected provider of all-inclusive, luxury river cruises and barge holidays throughout Europe. If you're looking for the most exciting and relaxing river cruises, Italy is an ideal choice. Part of a team of experienced barging aficionados, Paul is first in line to endorse the perks of a slow-paced barge cruise to anyone looking for a unique holiday experience.