The dark shadows of Gondolas have moved through the canals of Venice for almost 1000 years, and for each of those dark crescent shaped boats, there have been hundreds more Gondoliers, each rigorously trained and sworn into the Gondoliers guild, only after years of apprenticeship at the mercy of a master Gondolier. First the Gondoliers worked mostly for the Venetian elite, the wealthy and famed, and at their height, numbered in their thousands. They became the steerers of a maritime fad, that with the advent of steam boats, began to die down to what it is today – a vessel for tourists to see the city from the historic waterways, but also a symbol of the city of Venice, and its past melded to its present. This much is true enough, but the history of the Gondoliers is vast and complex, protected by the secrecy of the guild and shrouded in a beautiful mystery – a perfect theatre for the streets of Venice, so laced, as it is, with a deep romance.
As it is, the cabal-like guild of Gondoliers doesn’t give too much away. We know that only 425 Gondolier licenses are awarded by the city of Venice, that boats are often passed down from father to son, and that even though the first, and only official, female Gondolier was crowned Gondoliera in 2010, she’s only allowed to work in place of one one of the other Gondoliers, so she’s basically a sick leave Gondolier. Another theatre for the world to believe that Italy’s somewhat chauvinistic tendencies have died down at least a little.
Usually, if a woman was to inherit a Gondola from her husband, then as a widow, she would be allowed to employ a substitute on her husband’s license for two years, or until her son grows old enough to enter the guild, but would not be allowed to fill those duties herself, so it’s not instantly apparent how Giorgia Boscolo managed to become a part of the guild and a Gondolier. One assumes that it was by one of two traditional methods – by being born into the trade or by being found by another Gondolier – who would then act as trainer, teaching the intricate secrets of their society and the complex techniques, such as the voga ad un solo remo, used to navigate the Gondola through the network of canals. The way it’s been for at least 900 years.
The secrecy of the guild is far reaching, but it doesn’t extend to the Gondolier exams, and the families that take them, as each time the exams are held, the results are published in the local paper, along with titles such as “the son of” and “brother of”, showing just why it’s so difficult for a non-Venetian to penetrate this secret society of boat rowers. After passing the exam and apprenticing for 365 days as a substitute, a man, who aspires to be a Gondolier would then either have to inherit or try to buy a licence – it isn’t something that comes easily.
Gondoliers have been talked of since the 1000’s and some say that the Gondola at least, has been in existence since the 600’s – though evidence of this is lacking, so naturally it’s easy to find a reference or two in literature. My favourite of which is outlined in Giacomo Casanova’s memoir Story of My Life, where he talks of one of his favourite late-night pastimes: unmooring the gondolas to enrage the blaspheming gondoliers the next morning, who then had a reputation as fighters and drunks.
Of course todays more modern Gondoliers are better known as touts rather than the gambling drunks of old, found lingering on the banks of canals constantly purpose poised and ready to pounce on their next 100 Euro fare. That’s not to say they don’t share some traits with their distant ancestors – indeed, one of the most noted reasons for an absent Gondolier is suspension for bad behaviour – usually fighting amongst themselves.
As the city of Venice stands today, the Gondoliers provide an essential service, acting as servant to the millions of travellers who come in search of the world famous allure and romance of Venice: the seducer. Their reach goes beyond this though. The Gondolier attire of striped shirts, and sometimes straw hats, has become a popular staple with tourists (and bears – see above) too, as well as souvenir stands that sell all kinds of Gondolier themed tidbits. The summer months especially are full of folk clambering around as demi-Gondoliers, attracting, as one can see in the photo below, lingering and questioning stares from the members of the secretive guild for whom the staple blue or red stripes are de rigueur.
This photo collection of Venetian Gondoliers is one in a series of travel photos aimed to highlight the unique and the less explored aspects of travel. Click here to see the whole series.