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Once upon a time, 10,000 or so gondolas glided through the canals of Venice, Italy. It was the 1500s, and Venetians needed boats to move themselves and their goods around the city and beyond. The gondola of then was not the gondola of now: an elegant, narrow, flat-bottomed canoe painted black. In the past, gondolas were more of a ragtag collection of handmade boats, from rafts to gilded barges.
As time progressed, so too did Venetian water travel, becoming regulated and organized as boaters crowded the canals. Gondolas became standardized as well. In 1562, authorities decreed they be painted black—the fashionable gilt and glitz of the status-conscious rich was deemed sinful. Over the centuries, gondola design further developed under the auspices of a number of boat building families responding to market demand.
The current gondola design owes its inspiration to the visitors who flocked to Venice in the late 1800s. To deal with the tourist traffic jamming the Grand Canal, gondola makers lengthened and narrowed the boats, with the hull on the port side 23 centimeters longer than that on the right. This allowed one gondolier to maneuver the boat more easily—always from the starboard side—and freed up more space for seating. A guidebook from 1878 estimated the number of gondolas then at over 4,000. (It also ominously states: “Avoid gondola omnibuses.”)
Today, only about 400 authentic gondolas cruise the Grand Canal in Venice. Each year, there are fewer of the boats and fewer families creating this iconic symbol of Italy’s most serene city. Meet one of the few gondola makers remaining, Roberto Tramontin.