Gondola facts

10 interesting gondola facts

Gondola facts – 8 types of wood and 280 component pieces are used to make one gondola. This is one of the interesting facts about the emblem of Venice.

There are many theories concerning the origin of the word ‘gondola’, but is has never been satisfactorily established. According to the Italian dictionary lo Zingarelli the word ‘gondola’ may derive from the Greek ‘kondoura’ meaning ’small boat’.

The gondola is a flat-bottomed rowing boat especially adapted to conditions in the Venetian lagoon. The earliest recorded use of gondolas in Venice dates back to the 11th century.

Modern gondolas are handmade but highly uniform. They all weigh 700kg, have 280 component pieces and use eight types of wood – ie. oak, elm, lime, larch, fir, cherry, walnut, and mahogany.

All gondolas have an oar or ‘rèmo’  (made from beech) and a walnut ‘forcola’ or rowlock. The oar and the forcola are designed to allow eight distinct manoeuvres such as slow forward rowing, powerful forward rowing, turning, slowing down, rowing backwards, and stopping. In addition each forcola is carved to suit individual gondoliers.

In previous centuries gondolas could be many different colours, but a law from the 16th century requires gondolas to be painted black. The law stopped a competition for the most flamboyant colours and ornamentation among the nobility.  As a result gondola exteriors have just three flourishes – a curly tail, a pair of seahorses and a multi-pronged prow.

gondola facts

The prow is known as the ‘ferro’ (iron), but it can be made from brass, stainless steel, or aluminium. The ferro serves several purposes. It prevents the boat from damage if the gondola collides with other boats or bulwarks, and it serves as a counterweight for the gondolier. It also has ornamental value with the six prongs that may represent the six administrative districts in Venice.

The modern banana-shaped gondola is credited to the 19th century boat-builder Tramontin, whose heirs still run the Tramontin boatyard (this tour includes a visit). The constructional development of the gondola continued until the mid-20th century, when the city government prohibited further modifications.

All gondolas are slightly lopsided and bow out on the left. This asymmetry causes the gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke and compensates for the weight of the gondolier, who stands in the stern and rows only on the right side.

In old films and photographs gondolas are often fitted with a small cabin. Its windows could be closed with louvered shutters—the original ‘venetian blinds’. Later the ‘felze’ was replaced by a ‘tendalin’ summer awning, but they too were given up in the mid-1950s.

There are just over four hundred gondolas in active service today, virtually all of them used for hire by tourists. In order to become a professional gondolier you need to obtains a license from the guild. Licenses are only granted after periods of training and apprenticeship, and an exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills, and practical skills in manoeuvring the gondola through narrow canals.

You can book a private gondola here.

More on Venice

A novel guide to Venice

Venice islands you don’t want to miss

Districts of Venice: The charming backwaters

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17 replies
  1. Mary {The World Is A Book}
    Mary {The World Is A Book} says:

    This is all great information and good to know trivia. While I love the elegance of the black-colored gondolas, it would have been awesome to see it in flamboyant colors. Very interesting about the three flourishes. I will have to look at my gondola pictures to examine them more closely.

  2. Arianna
    Arianna says:

    Wow! This post was so cool… I know about gondola’s obviously but now I learn more of it and its magnificent how this long boats are made. As an Italian I want to always know more about my country and sometimes you give stuff “per scontato” since you are from that country but when you get new informations on the beauty of it you fall in love once more. Grazie for this great post!

    • admin
      admin says:

      Some of these facts I have from a late night TV programme on Rai1. But you are right: When you are very familiar with things you stop wondering.

  3. Elizabeth Dille
    Elizabeth Dille says:

    Thank you for the history and info on gondolas. I’m going to Italy for a month and will be taking a ride on a gondola. Now I will be looking for various aspects of the gondola while I’m on one. Very good info.

    Currently, it costs about 80 euro for a daytime ride of approximately 40 minutes and about 100 euro for an evening/night ride.


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