For many visitors, a trip to Venice would be incomplete without a voyage on a gondola. We were no exception. At several points around the city we encountered gondolieri, dressed in their traditional striped shirts and flat-topped boater hats, usually decorated by a red or blue ribbon. Gondoliers offered their services with repeated chants of “gondole, gondole” at passers-by. Everything about these men speaks of tradition, and admission into the limited ranks is not easily achieved. It was only in recent years that the first woman was accepted into their guild.
Gondole are the best-known of the several forms of boats developed uniquely for life in Venice. The boats themselves fascinated us. Built with a noticeable curve to the right, we learned that the unique design offsets the use of only one oar, always on the right. In the Dorsoduro, it is possible to visit the last remaining workshop where gondole are built and repaired.
The weight of the gondoliero standing at the stern required a counter-weight, which came in the form of ferro, or iron, at the prow. The uniquely distinctive shape of the ferro has evolved to represent both the past and present of Venice. Six forward-pointing and comb-like bars represent the six divisions of the city. The lone bar pointing the opposite direction represents the neighboring Giudecca island. Above, a curved form echoes the shape of the traditional head-piece worn by the Doge. It leaves a small arch shape below, which represents the beloved Ponte Rialto.
We spoke to a kindly-looking gondoliero standing near a quiet canal, and were soon gliding through narrow waters where he seemed to use his foot as much as the oar to turn tight corners, pushing away from walls as we navigated through oncoming motorized traffic. Once on the Grand Canal we glided slowly beneath the graceful arch of the Rialto bridge feeling like royalty.