Not everyone knows that the bow iron of a gondola (also known as ‘pettine’, the Italian word for 'comb') symbolizes the six ‘sestieri’ (districts) of Venice (see the bottom box of this page). During the golden age of the Serenissima, a typical Venetian craft was also a symbolic means of communication, testifying to the artistic, historic and cultural grandeur of the city.
Why do they all look the same?
Even if by tradition each gondolier has his/her own gondola, custom-made according to his/her weight and height, the boats must all look the same, by law. This because between the 15th and 16th centuries, during the height of the Serenissima’s splendour, noblemen used to decorate their gondolas with lavish ornamentation. In an attempt to abolish the competition between noble families, the local Senate passed a law decreeing that all gondolas must be standardized and painted black.
The ancient art of gondola making: the squeri
Gondolas are made in boat yards called ‘squeri’ by gondola builders – the ‘squeraroli’ and ‘maestri d’ascia (masters of the axe) – who have been in this line of work since the 11th century. The other parts, including the oars, are made at specialist workshops by expert craftsmen. Private gondolas no longer exist and the last person who owned one was art heiress Peggy Guggenheim. Find who she was in our people section.
A gondola usually takes about one year to build. In bygone days, gondolas were built and stored in small shipyards known as ‘squeri’, that is why you will find many restaurants and shops containing the Venetian word ‘squero’ in their names.
Every gondola is roughly 11 metres long, 1.40 metres wide and 0.65 metres high. Gondolas all have a flat bottom that allows them to navigate easily in shallow waters. Their components are approximately 280 made of 8 kinds of different wood – oak, elm, lime, larch, fir, cherry, walnut, and mahogany. The only parts in metal are the ‘ferro’ in the front and the ‘risso’ at the back.
Gondolas are asymmetrical. The left side is 24 cm longer than the right side. This asymmetry helps counterbalance the weight of the gondolier who stands at the back. It also compensates for the tendency of the boat to sway left as the gondolier continually rows on the right. The oar is made of beech and the ‘forcola’, the stylized oarlock, is made of walnut.
The end of a golden era
Since mid-14th century, the Venetian government started penalising the “squeraroli” (those working in the squeri) to advantage the state’s uber-specialised workers in Venice’s Arsenale, called “arsenalotti”.
In 1607, though, the squeraroli were allowed to gather in a so-called Scuola (a category association) and to keep a small part of the profitable boat-making market, though only limited to the construction of lagoon-style boats such as gondolas, “burci”, “bragozzi” and “peate”, the local name for barges.
Visiting a squero
Among the most ancient boatyards (or ‘squeri’), the most remarkable is perhaps that of Domenico Tramontin and Sons. Established in 1884, it was the supplier to the House of Savoy, the Prefecture and the Commune of Venice.
The upper part recalls the Doge’s hat, the lunette above the tooth represents the Rialto Bridge, the double ‘S’ bending running from the highest to the lowest point of the ‘iron’ represents the Grand Canal, a kind of tooth that extends back towards the centre of the gondola indicates the Giudecca, while below the main blade, 6 ‘rebbi’ (prongs) reference the sestieri of Cannaregio, Castello, Dorsoduro, San Marco, San Polo and Santa Croce. The iron featured in more recent constructions has been enhanced by the addition of three new finishes, representing the islands of Murano, Burano and Torcello.
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