Thursday, August 23, 2012

What would Venice be like without her Gondoliers?

Rowing beneath the Bridge of  Sighs

The other day my eye caught a blog post on an acquaintance’s Facebook page titled: Top 10 things to do in Venice (riding a gondola is NOT one of them!). I, along with a few others, left comments; those that had taken a gondola ride in the past disagreed with the title and agreed that, well, how could anyone come to Venice and NOT take a ride in a gondola?

Some of my readers know that I am married to a third generation gondolier, therefore my comments might come across as a pitch to keep my husband rowing—believe me he, and his colleagues, don’t need my help. The majority of travelers who come to Venice do budget for the “once in a lifetime” chance to see Venice from the perspective only a gondola can provide. And though I skipped a gondola ride on my first trip to Venice—I was traveling with a girlfriend and we erred in thinking that a gondola ride was best left to lovey-dovey couples—I’ve since learned it’s not limited to romance seekers but is indeed the most special way to explore the lifeline of canals that twist and turn through Venice.

The Facebook page conversation went back and forth. I made my contributions, maybe filled with more enthusiasm for Venice and her gondolas than necessary, but then decided to step aside when a local Venetian’s comment turned to reveal “hatred” for the category of gondoliers—her reasons kept to herself as she has the right to do. But hate is a very strong word, and sentiment. And if instead this remark was applied to say the restaurant business? “Service at such and such a restaurant was lousy, the food was worse, therefore I hate all restaurants.” I wouldn’t have paid much attention to the comment.

Now, this post is not meant to point fingers at those who disagree with me or who see the gondoliers—based on their experiences—in a different light than I do. I know there are locals who are not fond of the gondoliers. This is nothing new. Even Venice’s cherished Commedia dell’Arte scribe Carlo Goldoni wrote in the 1700s that the gondoliers, a category he seemed to be intrigued by, were either loved or hated. Yet, the Facebook conversation pushed me to ask myself: What would Venice be like without her gondoliers? 

Most travelers see gondoliers as solely a tourist attraction, while many locals see them as loud, boisterous, and “they walk around town as if they owned the place”. Both points of view have a vein of truth and untruth. But I wonder, has either group ever stopped to think about the contribution the gondoliers make to their city—tourism aside—and the benefit a few hundred gondolas gliding through the canals bring to Venice on a daily basis? Without the gondoliers and their gondolas Venice’s fragile foundation would probably be in a much worse condition. The gondola is actually a daily deterrent to Moto Ondoso—the damage made by the wake and the undertow of motorboats to Venice’s foundation. The gondoliers’ presence on any canal, wide or narrow, force motorboats—often too much in a hurry to obey speed limits—to slow down. So, their presence alone helps protect Venice. 

Seahorse ornament on a gondola 
Another situation that involves gondoliers and their city, and has flared up more recently, but hasn’t gotten much attention is that a few gondoliers have been threatened, and not just verbally, by the people who traffic “designer bags” on the street. Not only are these people selling illegal goods, some set down their wares and block the gondoliers’ work stations. When asked to move most do, however some now understand that the city administration isn’t making the elimination of their illegal trade on Venice’s sidewalks a priority and have flashed weapons and broken bottles to threaten the gondoliers who challenge where they decide to “set up shop”. The gondoliers have formally brought this to the attention of city officials, the Carabinieri and the local media, not only in defense of their workplace, but for the respect and love they have for Venice, and above all to put a stop to the city’s decline. Yet the city administration, so far, has chosen to look the other way, leaving the actions taken by the gondoliers—sometimes peaceful, sometimes not—to be brushed off as being “racially motivated”. Don’t the gondoliers, who are licensed to work at their given gondola stations, have the right to do so in peace? Or does someone have to be harmed before the city will address and curb this problem? Doesn’t Venice deserve more respect, if for no other reason than for what she gives to her residents and all who travel to see her?

In closing this rather unusual post for my blog, the message I’d like to send is that the category of gondoliers isn’t made up of angels or demons. They are men of tradition who have families, work hard, enjoy life, at times exaggerate, and often let a few too many parolacce fly from their lips. As for my husband, and his many colleagues who have always shown me respect and kindness, I can testify that they love their city and their jobs, and neither they nor their category deserve to be hated. I think for all the reasons I’ve stated above that the city, and its residents, should instead give them a little support.


  1. Men (and at least one woman) of tradition...... Thank you for this wonderful post Marie~

  2. Marie, when we were in Venice in June we encountered a wonderful group of older gentlemen (and several women) dressed as gondoliers with a few extra flourishes, like sashes, who sang some seemingly traditional Venetian songs. They each wore gold "ferro" pinned to their shirts. We learned later that they were performing in the singing festival that weekend (June 2-3, 2012). We assumed they were retired gondoliers but only because that is what they seemed to be. They had such fun singing and we had such fun listening to them. Do you know anything about this group? The gondoliers sitting nearby at their station at Campo San Barnaba stood by and sang some tunes with them. Unforgettable.

    1. Thanks to all for your comments! And Kris,
      That sounds like it was quite a treat! I'm not sure who they were, but I do know that a younger gondolier (who unfortunately passed away very recently) was part of a group called "The Joy Singers". Perhaps that was the group you saw?
      A presto,

  3. I too have been twice to venice and decided not to ride with the gondoliers because i thought it was too touristy and too expensive. However, I would love to try one day because i think they are symbolic of Venice and are a huge part of its character and tradition. thanks for this interesting post. Next time I will be sure to ride one!

  4. Well said, Marie! (And where is Commissario Guido Brunetti when you need him?) I've been to Venice many, many times and have somehow never ridden in a gondola. I first went as an artist's model and was way too poor. And later, I just never got around to it. Now, the gondoliero I really want to ride with is your husband—chi sa, force la prossima volta!

  5. For sure, travelling with a gondola is a wonderful experience, even if it's a little bit expensive.

    1. Hello, Venice Airport Hotels! Thank you for stopping by my blog, and for leaving a comment. Depending on one's budget a gondola ride can be expensive. However, many don't know that the fee is good for up to 6 people; so if a person, couple or small family wants they can share the expense. And another thing to keep in mind is that it is always less expensive to go directly to the gonodliers instead of booking through a Travel Agent, Cruise package or guide; usually the fare quoted by those agencies includes a pretty hefty commission!