Gondoliers are an important Venetian icon and remind us of a glamorous lifestyle. They represent one of the eldest trades in the city. There is however still a lot of mystery around the gondoliers’ world. It is a world where few locals, let alone foreigners, are a part of.
In this post, I will share with you some insights from within this special circle, thanks to Roberto Nardin and Marie Ohanesian Nardin. Roberto is a proud Venetian and a third generation gondolier. His wife Marie is an American author, who has just published her romantic novel ‘Beneath the Lion’s Wings’. Born in Los Angeles, Marie moved to Venice for Roberto, the love of her life. Her life choices made her an insider to the gondolier trade. Her enchantment with this trade, its traditions and limits—rare and contradictory—handed her inspiration to develop charming fictional characters, in addition to a principle player, the city of Venice.
Before I tell you why you should read Marie’s debut novel ‘Beneath the Lion’s Wings’, I will give you some background information on what it entails to be a gondolier.
Gondoliers have been active in Venice for more than 1,000 years. The first official reference is a license from Doge Vitale Falier from 1094, in which he refers to a ‘gondalum’. In the past, gondoliers mainly worked for rich Venetian families. As they knew many secrets of the aristocracy, the gondoliers were treated with respect and were high up on the social scale. Nowadays, the majority of their customers are tourists interested in a romantic ride on the canals.
DID YOU KNOW? The black coloured gondolas date from 1562. At that time, Doge Girolamo Priuli issued a ban on colourful gondolas which sumptuous decoration was only meant to impress. Now, coloured gondolas are only used for regatas.
Passion to become a gondolier
Most gondoliers descend from a family of gondoliers. Inspired by the passionate stories of their fathers and grandfathers, pursuing a life as a gondolier is quite natural. It makes them proud to follow in their family’s footsteps. At the same time, they want to show their beloved city to the world.
“I was about 7 or 8 years old, sitting on the back of my grandfather’s gondola as he was taking a couple of English speaking customers. What impressed me the most was passing under the Rialto Bridge and my grandfather referring to the poet Robert Browning, who died in Venice in 1889 on December 12th, the day after, but not the same year, as I was born. He motioned to me, indicating something of that nature, and telling them that my name too was Robert(o).”
Roberto Nardin speaking about his first time in a gondola
In ‘Beneath the Lion’s Wings’, Alvise’s passion for his job as a gondolier and for his city fills the novel. After reading the book, you will understand how this passion is part of the genetic make-up of gondoliers.
Voga alla Veneta
Rowing a gondola is a skilful job, so gondoliers need to be qualified. Most children in Venice, especially those from a gondolier family, start to row at a very young age. They practice the Voga alla Veneta, which is the Venetian style of rowing: standing up and facing forward. If you are intrigued by this specific rowing style and you would like to try it yourself, you can read about my first experience in ‘Rowing is the ultimate local experience when visiting Venice‘.
To demonstrate their skills and to compete with others, gondoliers participate in regatas. This is the only time they consider each other as competitors and not as colleagues. On the Festa di San Marco (April 25), the Regata dei Gondolieri takes place along Canal Grande. Some gondoliers also participate in other regatas such as those of the Regata Storica or the Festa del Redentore.
School for gondoliers
To become a gondolier, they must have some knowledge of Voga alla Veneta rowing and handling a gondola. After passing a rowing test and a swimming test, the students are accepted into the ‘Arte del Gondoliere’ school. The courses last for 12-18 months and combine language, history, local geography and of course rowing. The final exams include a more specific rowing exam.
“You can only say you know how to master a gondola when, while rowing, you’re able to place a full glass of wine aboard and not spill a drop.”
Quote from ‘Beneath the Lion’s Wings’
Those who pass must register with the local Chamber of Commerce, open a partita I.V.A. (a small business tax id) and pay all required fees. At this point, the person is considered a substitute gondolier. He/she must work up to one year in one of the 5 traghetti di parada (gondola stations) where people are transported from one side to the other across Canal Grande.
A lot has already been written about whether or not women are allowed to become a gondolier. By law, women cannot be prohibited to become gondoliers. However, some gondoliers find it still difficult to accept women besides them. When women pass the same exams as the men, they are added to the list of substitute gondoliers. At the moment, there is one authorized female substitute gondolier in Venice. Giorgia Boscolo, the daughter of a retired gondolier, passed her exam in 2010. Chiara Curto is an authorized sandolista in the Cannaregio area. (See my post ‘Cannaregio: A walk along artisans and history’ for some tips from Chiara.) A sandolista is not a gondolier, because he/she is only authorized to use a sandolo, a smaller, flatter Venetian row boat.
Each candidate receives an authorization to work as a substitute gondolier after passing the tests. No gondolier, substitute or fully licenced, can have more than one license or authorization. A few gondoliers have however a second deluxe gondola, used to transport dignitaries or for weddings.
The license is linked to a specific traghetto (gondola station), which implies that a gondolier always starts from the same location. Roberto for instance works at the Traghetto Molo, in front of Palazzo Ducale. The license can be transferred from father to son or daughter, but the same requirements apply to become a gondolier.
The gondola is the pride of the gondolier. Roberto for instance bought his first gondola when he was in his early 20s. He purchased a used gondola that was about as old as he was from a retired gondolier for 1 million lire or in today’s value approximately 500 euros. It made him feel independent, and proud. Nowadays, prices of a new gondola range between 20,000 and 50,000 euros, depending on the finishing and materials used. You can read more about this in ‘A Venetian gondola is a masterly piece of craftsmanship‘.
The red or blue striped shirt with a straw hat must be the most recognizable uniform in the world. It consists not only of the striped shirt, but also of black or dark blue trousers, black shoes and a dark jacket. The straw hat with a coloured ribbon is optional. The gondoliers can choose between blue and red. The t-shirts and jackets have an embroidered logo of the Association of Gondoliers.
INSIDER TIP: You can buy a gondolier shirt at the Emilio Ceccato clothing store at the foot of the Rialto Bridge or online. By doing so, you support this Venetian tradition. The Association of Gondoliers invests all royalties in projects which safeguard the gondolier and artisan trades that surround the gondola and the Venetian rowing style tradition. (More information on this topic can be found in my post ‘Discover how Venice finances its cultural heritage’.)
Beneath the Lion’s Wings
I had the honour to read Marie Ohanesian Nardin’s semi-autobiographical story ‘Beneath the Lion’s Wings’ before it was published. She tells the story of Victoria, an American career woman who falls in love with Alvise, a handsome Venetian gondolier. When Victoria follows Alvise to Venice, this is the start of a series of challenges she will have to overcome. I really loved the book and certainly recommend it to you.
‘Beneath the Lion’s Wings’ is a captivating novel and you will find it hard to put it aside, even though it is rather long (408 pages). This romantic novel is an ode to Venice and to the trade of gondoliers. Marie also takes the opportunity to explain other Venetian traditions, such as the Festa del Redentore, and to give you a glimpse of the importance of family, and certainly la mama, in Italy. Finally, Marie tells a broader story about making choices, taking chances, and stepping into the unknown.
Marie can’t hide how much she has become a Venetian and how much she loves the city. I do hope her next book is a follow-up, so I can read how the story of the main characters further evolves. It feels as if I know Alvise and Victoria and they became friends. I’m sure the book will make you want to travel to Venice immediately.
“There is nothing like seeing Venice from the angle only a gondola can provide.”
Marie Ohanesian Nardin
Enjoy your reading, and your ride on the gondola!
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PS: The picture in the banner is taken by Eva of Stud-Io Immagino on our wedding day.