One of the first images of the Italian gondola driver :
part of Vittore Carpaccio’s ‘Healing of a Madman’, 1494.
From the Galleria dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy.
We look at what the Italian gondola driver does ...
... and whether tourists are safe in their hands.
The gondolier is a big part of Venetian culture.
You will see them all over Venice : in the summer dressed in the easily recognisable straw boater with jaunty ribbon and the stripy vest; in winter not quite so colourful as, along with most other Italian people, they cover up in fleeces at the first sign of a cool breeze.
The first mention ever of an Italian gondola was in Venice in 1094 and, of course, there have been gondoliers as long as there have been gondolas - so it’s one of the oldest professions in the world.
Driving an Italian gondola has always been very much a ‘closed shop’. The gondolier’s licence used to be passed from father to son, or if there was no son to another male family member.
These days it’s even more difficult. Every gondolier must belong to the thousand-year-old Gondolier’s Guild which is strictly controlled.
He must find an experienced gondola driver to act as mentor, attend four hundred hours of instruction, and later pass a rigorous examination which tests not only physical endurance but navigational skills, knowledge of other languages and, most importantly, knowledge of Venice’s culture and sights.
So it’s far from easy.
Until August 2010, there had never been a single woman gondolier in Venice.
The licence had always been passed down male family members and the physical strength needed was thought to be too much for any woman.
Giorgia Boscolo changed all that.
She is the only woman ever to have completed the rigorous training and was given her licence despite reservations not only from the Gondoliers’ Guild, but from her father who commented that he was not sure whether it was a “suitable profession”.
But the age of chauvinism is not dead amongst gondoliers. Giorgia is only allowed to drive gondolas as a stand-in for a fellow male gondolier.
It’s a flat-bottomed boat which makes it very stable, but it’s also made of wood which makes it extremely heavy. It’s propelled and steered with a single oar, and that takes a high level of skill.
Many of Venice’s canals are very narrow, and the Grand Canal is an exceptionally busy waterway. It’s incredibly physically demanding if you’re going to give your customers a smooth ride and not jolt them into the walls of buildings down some of the narrow turns in the back canals.
This is one of the most highly-regarded and sought-after professions in Italy. Its training may be rigorous, but it’s certainly worth it - a Venetian gondolier can expect to earn around $150,000 each year.
Four hundred hours’ training, mentoring, exams and the assurance of a large wage.
Add to that the fact that a gondola is worth an enormous amount of money, and you just know that each and every gondolier is going to want to look after you very well indeed!
So, if you're planning a trip to Venice, don't hesitate to book a gondola ride before you go.
It's the experience of a lifetime.
If you’re going to Venice, get first hand experience of an Italian gondola - try this romantic Venetian gondola ride.