The gondola slides effortlessly under the low bridge, hardly creating a ripple, as the gondolier gracefully puts his foot up against the building wall to steer it around the narrow corner. It is a scene played out thousands of times a day in La Serenissima. For the photographer, the gondolas of Venice offer a wealth of subjects through which the city reveals itself. We enlist the help of our costumer friends, Joelle and Christian, to bring the journey to life.
HISTORY OF THE GONDOLA
The first historical reference to the gondola dates to a 1094 CE letter from Doge Vitale Falier; however, they probably existed long before as the primary means of transportation in the shallow waters of the Venetian Lagoon. By the 16th century, over 10,000 gondolas plied the waterways of Venice.
For the upper classes, many of whom owned private vessels, the gondolas were a way to flaunt wealth and power. Finally, the situation was so out of hand, the Doge decreed that all gondolas were to be painted a uniform black. He also limited the exterior decoration to the distinctive prow iron, or ferro, that counterbalances the weight of the gondolier, as well as a curly tail and a pair of seahorses.
Today, there are about 400 gondolas left with only about ten new gondolas a year built in one of the five remaining squeri (gondola workshops). Most of the squeri are small, dedicated to the construction of one specific type of boat. One of the more photogenic of these is the Squero di San Trovaso in Dorsoduro where you can photograph from across the small canal as the gondolas are maintained or built. Unfortunately, the squerarioli (gondola builders) are part of a profession that few Venetians are interested in learning.
Each gondola is handmade and consists of 280 pieces of eight different types of wood – walnut, fir, cherry, larch, mahogany, lime, elm, and oak. All are exactly 35 feet, 7 inches, long and 4 feet, 7 inches wide except that the left side is 10 inches longer to compensate for the weight of the gondolier.
Each part of the gondola is handcrafted in and around Venice. Many of the artisans are descendants of generations of craftsmen. As you photograph the gondolas, look for its unique features. For example, the single oar used by the gondolier is shaped taking into account the individual’s height and weight as well as the person’s style of rowing.
The oar passes through a forcola (the boat’s distinctive row lock that is carved from a single piece of walnut and aged for three years), made to order for each gondolier. A gondolier will never part with the forcola, even if the gondola is sold. It passes from generation to generation.
The ferro is the metal prow that also counterbalances the weight of the gondolier. Its unique shape mirrors the S shape of the Grand Canal. Its six horizontal prongs (known as Pettini) symbolize the six sestieri of Venice, while the prong that faces backward symbolizes Giudecca, the island just south of the main island. The flourish on the top of the six prongs represents the Doge’s cap, while the little arch between the flourish and prongs is supposed to be the Rialto Bridge.
Four hundred gondoliers, clad in their iconic striped shirts and ribbon-decorated straw boater hats, steer the unique craft through the waters of Venice. Until 2010, they were all men. However, Giorgia Boscolo broke through the monopoly by successfully passing the rigorous exam (that follows 400 hours of training and an apprenticeship) to become the first woman gondolier. (In addition to knowing how to handle a gondola, the gondolier must show knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks.) Unfortunately, during our time in Venice, Giorgia was on maternity leave, so we were not able to hire her as our gondolier.
The Gondoliers Governing body determines the standard uniform that is worn. According to one legend, the striped shirts originally matched the striped poles in front of the houses of the nobility; however, another source says they date from the Napoleonic era, influenced by Breton fishermen’s shirts.
Venetians don’t use the gondolas. If they want to cross the Grand Canal between the bridges, they use a traghetto, a sort of gondola ferry. These boats are purely utilitarian – no gilt or red velvet seats. Two gondoliers propel these boats, and the general protocol is for passengers to stand for the duration of the ride. On the other hand, standing on a rocking boat with nothing to hold on to can be intimidating, so feel free to sit down if you don’t want to go for a dunk in the canal.
PHOTOGRAPHING THE GONDOLAS OF VENICE
You can photograph the gondolas of Venice all over the city, from the quays and small bridges to the campos and calles. (Sunrise and sunset provide spectacular opportunities. The most iconic shots are found at sunrise on Piazza San Marco.)
You don’t necessarily have to ride in a gondola to photograph it; however, in many ways , gondolas define Venice, so why not take advantage of the opportunity to take some unique photographs.
Most of the 20 million visitors to Venice will ride in a gondola at least once. You see them packed in around Piazza San Marco, often six to eight passengers in a boat. It doesn’t make for very exciting photography. Instead, consider using models to portray Venice and its gondolas. (During Carnevale many costumers are happy to exchange a gondola ride for a photo shoot, as long as you provide them copies of the photographs). Or ask family and friends to model for you.
For optimal photography, the maximum number of people in a gondola should be three plus the gondolier. For this photoshoot, we were fortunate to have our costumer friends, Joelle and Christian, in their elaborate outfits (handmade by Joelle). Position your models in front of the gondolier, facing forward. Position yourself at the other end of the gondola, facing backward. This enables you to photograph their faces as well as to include the gondolier in some shots.
Carefully pick your route, depending on what you want to photograph. A gondola gliding through the Grand Canal allows you to include the beautiful palazzi as a backdrop; one on the smaller canals provides opportunities to shoot the iconic bridges and tiny waterways. Ideally, you want to have both.
Select a gondola and gondolier and explain what you wish to do. Some are more accommodating than others. Our excursion to photograph the gondolas of Venice starts from the station near the Palazzo Gritti, opposite the Punta Della Dogana. Our gondolier takes us into the Grand Canal as far as the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute. There, he turns into the warren of smaller canals that loop around the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Giglio, past the Teatro la Fenice and back into the Grand Canal.
Be aware of the changing light as you travel through the canals, and adjust your settings accordingly. As we move up the Grand Canal, the sun is behind me, but when we turn into a small canal, it is behind the models, backlighting them.
Regarding photo equipment, the more versatile your lens is, the better. You don’t necessarily want to change lenses in a moving gondola, so a medium length telephoto is useful. I use a Nikon DSLR camera with a 28-300mm lens. It gives me the flexibility of photographing both wide-angle shots as well as the details of the gondola and the models.
Some would consider riding a gondola to be a cliché; however, if you want to understand how this city works and at the same time take unique photographs from the water, don’t miss the opportunity.
IF YOU GO
Franco Furlanetto is one of four remaining craftsmen who specialize in making oars and oar rests (forcolas). Look for him in San Polo on Calle dei Saoneri, where you can pick up an oar rest or scale models of gondolas as gifts.
The Squero of San Trovaso in Dorsoduro is not far from the Giudecca Canal. Photograph the east-facing workshop from across the small canal, preferably in the morning.
For more images of the gondolas of Venice, visit www.allegriaphotos.com.