Wouldn't it be fun to take a boat ride at night? To hear the lapping of the waves and to see the lights reflecting on the water as you move quietly along? If you were a gondolier, paddling your gondola (pronounced GAHN-duh-lah), you might do this every night in a city whose streets are canals of deep water. You probably know about canoes, invented by the first Americans and shaped a little like the long, sleek hulls of the gondolas. What might happen if you stood up suddenly in one of those canoes? Right.... Into the water you tumble with a splash! If this ever happens in a gondola, no one is telling. Gondoliers have been standing on the rear deck to row for more than 900 years.
In the 1500s, Vittore Carpaccio drew many gondolas and gondoliers when he painted stories that took place in Venice. As you see in the detail above, a gondola and its gondolier travel the quiet reflecting waters of the lagoon. Standing as upright and tall as the campanile (bell tower) before him, the peaceful, poised gondolier pushes his boat through the water.
Although you might not know it from the picture, every gondola is asymmetrical. That is, if you slice the boat in half the long way, the left side is larger, has a broader bottom, and curves more than the right side. The little covered felze (awning) that arches over the rear deck to shade the passenger developed over time into a little house with doors and windows. But today gondolas are open to the sun.
Gondolas have all been painted black since a law of 1562. But ambassadors from other countries might have had four or five gondolas, each with a different-colored felze, such as bright blue silk with gold fringe, bright red carpet and cushions, gilded wood - all to make a brilliant entrance into the city.
Of course, a gondolier needs a new gondola every few years. At a squero (an open boatyard), the gondolas are built, then cleaned every 30 days in the summer and every three months in the winter. And each year in September (for the last 600 years) people come from everywhere to watch the gondoliers race in a regatta down the Canal Grande, the widest canal and the main street of the city.
If you were a gondolier, you would need the strength, courage, poise, and calm of Carpaccio's painted gondolier. And you should love to sing - for gondoliers sing to their passengers.
But most of all, you would need to be good at ducking bridges! Can you imagine being ready to duck each of the 345 little low bridges connecting the island of Venice, each with an opening waist-high (at high tide) on a gondolier?
Do you suppose the children in Venice hope that when they grow up they'll be gondoliers?