It is thought that the first Gondolas appeared around 1,500 years ago, and by the 17th century, it was estimated that there were 10,000 Gondolas in Venice. The Gondola has undergone a continuous evolution in design throughout its history. During the 13th century, it was rowed by 12 oars; by the 15th century it was smaller but had gained a cabin, called a felze, and by the 16th century, wealthy owners had created such elaborate, garish designs for thier boats that the authorities issued a special law banning ostentation of any kind.
Ever since then, Gondolas have been painted black, and carry only three decorations, the distinctive 'Ferro' on the bow, the decorated Risso at the stern and the 'Forcola', the complicated structure used to support the oar during the various movements necessary to navigate the canals of Venice.
By the 18th century, the recognised design of the Gondola was almost established, although in the paintings of Canaletto, the Gondola is shown with a lower prow and being operated by two oarsmen. The modern day design was created in the 19th century by the boat-builder Tramontin, whose family-run boatyard still produces Gondolas today. Some further modifications were added in the 20th century but then all further modifications were banned by the Venetian city council.
The modern Gondola weighs around 350 kilos and is 10.85 metres long and 1.4 metres wide. Its distinctive, assymetrical shape is created by the left side being 24cm longer than the right. It is made from 280, interlocking pieces, using eight different kinds of wood: Oak, Fir, Cherry, Larch, Linden, Walnut, Elm and Mahogany.
The decorative shape at the bow is called the 'Ferro' and is extremely symbolic. The six prongs facing forwards are said to represent the six districts of Venice, the 'sestieri'. The additional prong facing backwards is said to represent the island of Giudecca, and the broad blade at the top is said to represent the 'Rialto Bridge'.
The 'Risso' at the stern, is highly decorated and based on the shape of a seahorse.
The Gongola is operated by a Gondolier, who stands near the back of the boat and propels and steers the Gondola using a single oar, or 'Rèmo'. This oar is supported in an oar lock or 'Forcola'. The complicated shape of the forcola allows the Gondolier to use the oar in different positions for slow forward rowing, powerful forward rowing, turning, slowing down, rowing backwards, and stopping.
There are now just over 400 Gondolas in Venice, mainly used as taxis or for tourist trips. A Gondolier is a highly skilled job and all Gondoliers have to be licensed by the authorities in Venice. After an extensive period of training and apprenticeship, they must pass an exam which tests their knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills, and practical skills in handling the gondola, not an easy task in the tortuously narrow labyrinth of the Venetian canals. The first female Gondolier was licensed in 2010.
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