Everyone has seen them — in movies, in paintings, in dreams — slinking like panthers through Venetian canals: The gondola, strangely regal, slightly ominous, an implausible boat in a highly implausible city.
Novelists, poets, artists, even people who don't particularly care about boats have struggled to express its peculiar fascination. They've compared the gondola to a cradle, a coffin, a bird. Is it the bizarre shape? The obsidian blackness? Its extraordinary environment of floating palaces? Whatever the explanation, Venice without the gondola might as well be Venice without water.
Why, given Venice's intricate environment of narrow canals and sharp corners, is such a long vessel the perfect boat for this city? And how can it possibly be that a person rowing a gondola carrying two passengers exerts no more energy than if he were just walking down the street?
While the design of a gondola (GON-do-lah) might seem to be based on fantasy and ornamentation, it is actually a work of logic, geometry, and physics. Each boat is entirely made by hand and to order, and almost invisibly adjusted according to the weight of the gondolier. The calculations governing its 280 components, refined over centuries, are so exact that if the builder isn't sensitive to variations of millimeters in thicknesses, infinitesimal degrees of curvature, and grams of weight, your gondola might turn out to behave less like a weightless water lily and more like a dead musk ox.
If there is anyone who understands this required precision, it would be Roberto Dei Rossi.
"You told me you'd be starting a new gondola this morning," I reminded him as I walked into his squero (SQUARE-oh), or boatyard. "I've already started," he said with a smile, waving toward a stack of curved wooden staves lying on a table. "There it is."
This conversation occurred in 2019, a few months before the start of the winter flooding season. This tidal phenomenon, simply called acqua alta (high water) is nothing unusual, and Venetians take it as a temporary if annoying part of life. But the flood that struck on the night of Nov. 12, 2019, was on another order of magnitude. Driven by howling winds of up to 100 kph (62 mph), the water rose to 187 cm (6 feet) above mean sea level, a mere 3 inches below the highest ever recorded. Immediately dubbed the Acqua Granda (great water), it shattered, twisted, and destroyed. Roberto Dei Rossi's boatyard was directly in the storm's path, leaving an apocalyptic wasteland of devastated boats and wounded machinery.
Only 4 months later, a national lockdown to combat the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic killed Venice's tourist industry, the basis of the entire city's economy. Venice used to suffer from too many tourists, but 2020's shortened season brought the reverse: 13 million fewer tourists than is the norm. Hotels, restaurants, bars, hardware stores, glass-blowers, motorboat taxi drivers, and myriad others are down as much as 70 percent of their normal incomes, and some are down to zero. One day this fall, normally a popular time to visit Venice, nine gondoliers were on duty at the "Molo" gondola station in front of the famous Palazzo Ducale (the Doge's Palace), and in the course of the day, each had only one client.
As the pandemic continued, many gondoliers simply went home, and anyone who had ordered a new gondola from Roberto Dei Rossi called up to cancel it, leaving him without any of his expected income for 2020 and barely any for the foreseeable future. The flood may have reduced Roberto's yard to rubble, damage he calculated at 53,000 euros ($62,500), but COVID-19 has threatened its very existence. "In all these years, I've never been without work," Roberto told me in October 2020. "Almost nobody wanted to learn the trade, now this."
There are only four craftsmen in Venice who are capable of making a gondola from start to finish, and all of these artisans are now in dire straits. Although the city has paid numerous claims for damages, the twin cataclysms of the flood and the pandemic have saddled the city with problems so enormous that the fate of a few gondola builders is unlikely to get much attention.
These circumstances raise a disturbing question: Will the gondola disappear, taking its secrets with it? This boat, and the city that made it famous, have both survived centuries of plagues, conflagrations, and numerous other disasters, so it would be foolish to make predictions. But if the gondola's demise occurs, it's worth visiting the work and history that has created this remarkable vessel, and made it such an iconic and peerless symbol of nautical grace and beauty.
A gondola is formed on a wooden frame, the cantier (cant-YARE), fixed in Dei Rossi's shop by screws to the cement floor. The cantier gradually sprouts 66 carefully cut pieces of elm ribs, screwed to 33 straight pieces of oak, and its dimensions haven't changed since the 18th century: 35.56 feet long (or 36.41 feet long if you include the ornate metal ferro on the bow), and 4.52-4.65 feet wide. This frame is worth its weight in rhodium, because without it — and without its being fixed to the floor exactly right — the results will be something of a gamble. "If you move the cantier even one centimeter," one gondolier told me, "you can upset everything." He mentioned one boatbuilder who had been forced to move his cantier only slightly to accommodate some temporary workmen. "The next gondola he made wasn't fit to be rowed," he said.
The priceless cantier matters so much because it contains the gondola's two primordial secrets. First is the asymmetry of the hull — almost straight on the right or starboard side, 9 inches (or 23 cm) rounder on the left or port side. Being asymmetrical makes the boat uniquely maneuverable, able not only to slither around 90-degree corners but also to turn in any direction, even when the boat is barely moving. The cantier's second secret is that it's imperceptibly tilted a few centimeters to the right. Although the flat-bottomed boat appears to lie flat in the water, this tiny list makes it slide along the hull's right edge as if it were on a rail.
Although the cantier in Roberto's shop is the one he's always used, each gondola comes out slightly different than the one he finished 3 months ago. And even small differences can have huge consequences. During one launch day, a new gondola (not Roberto's) capsized in front of the thunderstruck friends and family of the suddenly not-proud new owner. Because of disasters like this, the tension in the air on launch day is palpable. Not only will everybody be watching, everybody will have something to say — the nautical version of Monday-morning quarterbacking.
Still, Roberto is used to all this; he even welcomes it. "That's when you hear the criticisms. Of course, the owner's happy, because he's got a new boat. But on the basis of the comments you slowly learn to make corrections. You listen to what people say."
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