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Venice is famously known as the City of Canals and if there’s one thing that symbolizes Venice more than anything else – it has to be the gondola. We not only learn about the fascinating history and traditions of this unique experience, but we also get some tips on how to get the most out of your gondola experience.
We talk to Venetian and tour guide Elisabetta Amadi, whose family goes back many generations in Venice, about this city’s most enduring icon, the gondola – their history, their evolution, how they are made, the gondoliers, and how best to enjoy a ride in one on your trip to Venice.
What you’ll learn in this episode
- Gondolas mentioned from about 1200 – back to the paintings of Gentile_Bellini & Carpaccio
- Until the 1800s you’d have at least 2 gondoliers
- The canopy (felze) was created to protect the passenger from not only the sun or rain but from the prying eyes of other Venetians! So they could move around the city without really been seen by others (especially if you were headed to the newly created casino of Ridotto – doubly so if your companion was not your spouse!)
- In the 16 and 17 hundreds, Venice was a city that was seen by foreign countries as a place full of people that love to enjoy life – music, salons, eating, drinking, enjoying others company – which was certainly an attraction to many foreigners. At that time there was also a part of the government that was trying to restrict the decadent side that the Venetians loved so much – the ornate decoration, the gold, the paintings, those incredible dresses, costumes, and jewelry, and vibrant colors. However, foreigners did not have to comply with many of their laws, so it remained a popular destination for wealthy visitors
- In the 17th and 18th centuries, there were an estimated 8 to 10 thousand gondolas, compared to now – with just over 400 in service
- Traghetti are special gondolas that hold 10-12 people located between the Grand Canals 3 bridges to take you across quickly
- Gondola ride tip – rather than riding around the Grand Canal, going off on the small side canal can be a wonderful and less busy experience and a great place to learn about some of Venice’s many secrets
- Many gondoliers come from generations of gondoliers.
- That there is an actual shop. Let’s call it the preferred shop because they make the clothing for gondoliers with very good material. So that’s very good wool for the winter. And they have this lovely shop right at the feet of the Rialto Bridge, let’s say from the side of the Realty market, and it’s their formal shop
- The Tramontina squero is a very important one for the history of the gondola. Domenico Tramontin founded his squero in the district of Dorsoduro in 1884 and had an impact on two main features of the gondolas we know today:
- they made the gondola asymmetrical to allow the gondola to row with less effort and only by one man (with the change to one oar came a single hole on one side)
- they also made the gondolas incredibly well-balanced so they wouldn’t tip – a task that means a lot of calculation, including the weight of the gondolier
- Building a gondola is complex and takes a long time and a lot of work. Initially, 8 different types of wood, after the wood is chosen it needs to dry/season for about a year and then finally the construction takes several months, and involves around 500 hours of work,
- Until a gondola is sold, it won’t have any external paint to prove that is not being used. When it is then painted it requires 7 coats of paint and the level of decoration varies and can add many, many thousands to the cost
- The squero San Trovaso in Dorsoduro has a little osteria opposite and if you get very lucky you can get a view of them working on the gondolas or you can sometimes arrange a tour of this squero – which has the look of a mountain hut, due to its early workers coming from the alpine areas of Cadore and Valsugana.
- Goldolalas in the past (and sometimes even now) have been used for weddings and also funerals. When used for weddings the gondoliers would change their uniform to wear white
About our guest – Elisabetta Amadi
Elisabetta is a city guide for Venice, who can trace her family history back over 500 years in the city. With Elisabetta you can explore the best that Venice and the Veneto region has to offer. She tells you stories that have been handed down from generations in her family about the most famous and not-so-famous personalities of Venice. Elisabetta studied in the canal city and then travelled to many different countries and explored Italy inside out but in the end Venice won. She decided this was the city to come back to and she’s worked in tourism since 1995 and is still extremely excited to lead tours in her city.
Many clients book her for their first full day in Venice, whether arriving by cruise ship, flying in for a short stay, or visiting as part of a wider tour around the country. They then get to see the best that Venice has to offer and walk away with confidence on how to find their way around the city independently for the rest of their stay. They do this armed with step-by-step instructions and recommendations from Elisabetta, a sixth generation Venetian!
She does tours throughout the region, including Padova, Verona, and Treviso – all manageable single-day trips from Venice. Elisabetta can help design your tour to be tailor-made to your specifications- for example, a tour of Venice that includes the Doges Palace and Basilica of Saint Mark with a Bacari tour (wine and finger food) – all in one day? The possibilities are endless.
You can find Elisabetta on these channels:
Places and people mentioned in the show
- Ponte della Costituzione – Venice’s newer 4th bridge, the bridge of the constitution. Known my most as the Calatrava Bridge after the architect who designed it
- Piazza San Marco – main square of Venice home to ritzy cafes, the basilica and Palazzo Ducale
- Rialto bridge – famous white bridge of Venice spanning the Grand Canal which is the central bridge
- Accademia Bridge – bridge that crosses near the southern end of the Grand Canal
- Piazzale Roma – a square at the entrance of the city, at the end of the Ponte della Libertà bridge
- Cadore – is an historical Region in the Northern Veneto
- Valsugana – valley near Venice leading into the foothills of the Alps
- San Michele – is known as the island of the dead as it’s home to the city cemetery
- Gentile Bellini Vittore Carpaccio – Italian painters of the school of Venice in the 1400s
- felze – the gondola canopy
- Ridotto – was a wing of Venice’s Palazzo Dandolo near the church of San Moisè. In 1638, it was converted at the behest of Venice’s city leaders into a government-owned gambling house – the West’s first public, legal mercantile casino.
- Santiago Calatrava – architect who designed the Ponte della Costituzione
- forcola – the oarpost or rowlock used in Venetian rowing
- squero – where the gondolas are built. There are only 4 active ones left – Tramontin and San Trovaso in Dorsoduro, Crea and Roberto Dei Rossi in Giudecca
Resources from Untold Italy
- Discover more in our Guide to Venice, our 3 day itinerary for Venice, how to enjoy Venice with kids, Hidden Gems in Venice and Off the beaten-track Venice and more on the region in our Veneto guide
- Listen: to more on Venice in Episode #048: Venice districts – best places to stay for your trip, Episode 10: Venice highlights and Episode 37: Secrets of Venice and listen to tips on finding a great gondolier and making other wonderful experience in Italy in Episode- #104: Experiences to include in your dream trip to Italy
- How to plan a trip to Italy – our article that takes you step by step through trip planning so you can avoid our mistakes
- Italy Travel Planning – our FREE online community where you can ask questions and get inspiration for planning your trip
- Travel shop where you’ll find items mentioned in the show
Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.