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)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
164, the Scuola Canton, Venice

In the square of the Ghetto Nuovo, the cupola above the bimah is the only visible sign of the presence of the Canton Synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I arrived in Venice yesterday, and I am spending a few here, staying at the Hotel San Cassiano in the Ca’ Favretto in the Santa Croce district just a few minutes’ walk from Rialto, and celebrating some important family birthdays and anniversaries.

Before the day begins, I have taken a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

Photographs of churches in Venice provided the theme for this prayer diary in the week 20-27 June 2021. So, instead, as part of my reflections and this prayer diary this week, my photographs are from the ghetto in Venice. I am looking at each of the five historic synagogues in the Ghetto in turn each morning this week.

My photographs this morning (9 November 2021) are from the Scuola Canton, built as a private synagogue for four Ashkenazic families of French origin who funded its construction in 1531-1532.

The Aron haKodesh or Holy Ark in the Canton Synagogue in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Canton Synagogue (Scuola Canton) is one of five synagogues in the Ghetto. Itwas completed in 1532, four years after the nearby Scuola Grande Tedesca (1528), making it the second oldest surviving synagogue in Venice.

Standing in the square, the little cupola above the bimah is the only visible sign of the presence of the Canton Synagogue.

The origins and the name of this synagogue are uncertain: it may have been built as a prayer room for a group of Proven├žal Jews soon after their arrival in Venice, or as a private synagogue for a prominent local family. Since then, it has been remodelled repeatedly, and inside it is decorated in the Baroque and Rococo styles.

The name ‘Canton’ may come from the older name of the site, canton del medras or ‘corner of the Midrash, a reference to the building’s position in the southern corner of the square of the Ghetto Nuovo.

Another theory suggests the word derives from the Canton (or Cantoni) family that financed building the synagogue. This suggestion is supported by the fact that three Jewish prayer rooms once located in the Ghetto Nuovo – Scuola Luzzatto, Scuola Coanim and Scuola Meshullamim – bore the names of their founding families.

The synagogue was restored in 2016-2017 with support from the World Monuments Fund.

The bimah in the Canton Synagogue in Venice (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Luke 17: 7-10 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 7 ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”.’

Detailed carving in the Scuola Canton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (9 November 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for the World Student Christian Federation and the work it does to show university students the radical inclusivity of God’s love.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Canton Scuola is recognisable from the square outside by its small domed skylight (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)