09 November 2021

‘Don’t feed the gondolas’
and don’t ask gondoliers
to sing ‘O Sole Mio’

Gondolas facing Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

There is an apocryphal story of an opera set in Venice coming to the festival in Wexford one year and inspiring one town councillor to suggest promoting the theme by putting a Gondola in the Crescent.

Not to be outdone, a second councillor asked why two gondolas could not be found for the Crescent – feeding two would probably be as cheap as feeding one.

‘Don’t be foolish,’ interjected a third councillor. ‘They’d probably fall in love and fly off with each other. Then where we find a third Gone doh-lah.’

But the original proposer was not to be outdone. ‘Sure if they fell in love we could breed them, and have them for the festival every year.’

The traditional Gondolas of Venice are elegant and are found throughout the city, particularly along the Grand Canal between Rialto and Saint Mark’s Square, and even along many of the minor canals.

The Gondola is both symbolic and representative of Venice, a unique example of nautical engineering that has endured for centuries. These black boats are known all over the world as symbols of Venice, yet they also truly carry the symbols of the city themselves.

Those symbols are found in the iron prow-head of the gondola. It looks like a comb at the front of each boat and has the function of balancing the boat. But, in fact, its shape is not random at all.

Il Fero – the symbol of the Gondola – is the metal ornament found at the bow or the front of the Gondola. Its precise design is imbued with many traditional references.

The S-shape of the fero represents the twists of the Grand Canal. The five forward facing teeth correspond to the six districts of Venice: San Marco, San Polo, Sante Croce, Castello, Dorsoduro, and Cannaregio, while the sixth tooth facing inwards represents Giudecca. In between, there are ingots representing three of the larger islands in the lagoon: Murano, Burano Torcello.

The curved top end symbolises the Doge’s hat; the arch below it represents the Rialto Bridge, and the space below it the quayside at Saint Mark’s Square.

Gondolas are made in the Squero, a small shipyard where smaller wooden boats are made by Ascia or Masters that transmit there artistry to future generations.

Eight different types of wood are used in building an authentic Venetian Gondola and there are a total of 280 parts. In fact, more than 500 hours are needed to make this masterpiece, which is 11 meters long and weighs more than 600 kg. To navigate over the countless shifting sandbars, the boats are flat, with no keel or rudder, and the gondoliers stand up to see their way through very shallow waters.

But it was only this week that I realised that the Gondola is crooked in shape. The Gondola is built asymmetrical, with the left side wider than the right side by 24 cm, so that an oar thrusting from that side sends the gondola in a straight line. This also allows the gondolier to perfectly balance as he rows on just one side of the Gondola, using these single oars both to propel and to steer the boats.

Venice has about 400 working Gondolas today. But they used only by tourists. A Gondola ride lasts about 40 minutes and costs about €80, or €100 at night, although prices for group excursions may be negotiable.

Not only should you not try to feed the gondolas, you should not ask a gondolier to sing O Sole Mio – the song comes from Naples, not Venice – even if you did hear it in the streets of Wexford during the Festival.

Gondolas waiting for tourists below Rialto Bridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

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