Shelley likened them to ‘moths of which a coffin might have been the chrysalis’.
Travelling down the Grand Canal on a vaporetto is wonderful, but the gondola is the ‘crème de la crème‘ of the water craft. To simply sit in one of those beautiful hand-crafted vessels is to feel like royalty. In the sixteenth century there were ten thousand gondolas in Venice. Today the four hundred that ply the canals have been reduced to a mere tourist spectacle for the 22 million annual visitors to Venice; and a ride is expensive. Some say gondoliers earn five-figure sums and subtract four noughts when they do their tax returns. Some believe they don’t bother with tax at all. ‘It’s a Mafia’, Nicola – who’s never been in a gondola in his life – told us, ‘no-one can do anything about it’.
I’d been admiring them on our walks around town. The sight of a row of steel ‘ferros‘ bobbing on the water, glinting in the sunlight against the backdrop of San Georgio Maggiore is emblematic of the city. Nowadays gondolas never have the felze, the little black cabins that perhaps made Shelley think of them so mournfully. But they still have carpets, seemingly oriental, tassels and pom-poms, gilded mermaids, Neptunes, cherubs and seahorses, heavily embroidered cushioned seats, little chairs with carved wooden legs, gold, glitz and oceans of shiny black varnish. (Gondolas have been black since the sixteenth century, when the sumptuary laws ordained it). Each is unique. Gondoliers lounge laconically on low bridges, clad in striped jerseys, straw boaters and dark sunglasses. ‘Gondola, gondola, gondoleri’ they don’t so much shout, as suggest huskily – it’s a seductive, sexy game. They swear they cannot lower their price – however much they may wish to – their hands are tied.
At Santa Sofia near the pescaria we stepped gingerly into a traghetto. The poor cousin amongst the gondolas, stripped of velvet, and all other decoration – but also of exhorbitant prices. For Euro 2, a couple of gondoliers will row passengers across the Grand Canal. It’s de rigeur to stand in the traghetto – only the decrepit and infirm sit. We wobbled and clung to each other and felt the rhythm of the water, the Grand Canal just beneath our feet.
And then on a cold, bright afternoon, towards the end of our trip, we succumbed and stepped down into Alessandro’s gondola. Forty minutes of delight and decadence, finery and frippery. In a gondola, on the back waters, Venice reveals her true self. The boat crouches low, panther-like on the water, so close it’s possible to stretch out your hand and lose it in the green-black velvet of the water, to smell the mud and moss, to see passage-ways – which remain invisible from higher bridges – succumb to watery nothingness. It’s a world of intrigue, romance, and secret trysts. The smaller canals are quiet as tombs, encased by the high walls of ancient palazzos; the silence broken only by the sound of the oar dipping in and out of the inky blue-blackness and Alessandro’s warning cries of ‘oe‘, ‘premi‘ and ‘stai‘ which echo off dark walls and alert others to his presence as he manoeuvres round crumbling corners, and steers us seemingly effortlessly under tiny, damp, dim bridges. A silent, muffled, intimate, magnificent world.
Occasionally Alessandro spoke, telling us that he’d been a gondolier for more than twenty years, like his father and grandfather before him. The profession is still organised like an old-fashioned guild, with fathers passing on skills and licences to their sons. I asked what he thought of Giorgia Boscolo, the lone lady gondoliera. ‘Why not’, he shrugged, ‘times are changing’; but after a moment’s pause he added that maybe it wasn’t such a good job for a woman – ‘too hard, not strong enough, too much bad weather’. Times have perhaps not changed as much as Alessandro would like to believe; but everyone should sit in a gondola once in their lifetime, to take part in the tradition of, and share in the mythology of this water world.