In Venice, gondolas rock to the wrong tunes

Venice is famous for its gondolas and gondoliers, but the songs they sing are not as authentic and homegrown as you think – many originated outside Venice.

Marcus Brandt/Newscom/File
A gondolier watches a colleague from a bridge in Venice.

• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Of all the images of Venice, a gondolier wearing a straw boater and striped jersey serenading a pair of lovers as he rows them down the Grand Canal is the one that sticks most in the mind.

But just how authentically Venetian are the songs that gondoliers croon to their passengers? According to local politicians, not at all. Of the 10 most regularly requested songs, only three have the vaguest connection to “La Serenissima,” as Venice is known. The others come from places such as Naples, hundreds of miles to the south, including “O Sole Mio” – which in British minds at least is forever associated with a 1980s commercial for ice cream. One of the top 10 is not even Italian – “That’s Amore” was a hit for Dean Martin in the movie “The Caddy” back in 1953.

Gondoliers have been “ignoring Venetian identity” and offering a “distorted image” of the lagoon city as a sort of cultural Disneyland, said city councillor Alberto Mazzonetto.

The gondoliers struck back, saying that it was not their fault if tourists requested such cheesy classics. The row is the latest example of how Venice struggles to reconcile the preservation of its heritage with the practical demands imposed on it by mass tourism.

Earlier this year the gondoliers’ association described plans by a boatyard in Brindisi, in the south, to build plastic replica gondolas that would be weather-resistant and much cheaper than traditionally made timber craft as “outrageous.” In October, the city announced that it would try to secure World Heritage listing for the flat-bottomed boats in a bid to protect them from such affronts.

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