The Gondoliers of Venice
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.
Originally 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 canals, 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 romance and performance.
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 the first, and only official, female Gondolier was crowned Gondoliera in 2010, but she’s only allowed to work in place of one one of the other Gondoliers, so she’s basically a sick leave Gondolier.
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 Veneta.
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, but 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 today’s 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) 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 and white stripes are de rigueur.