Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

Gondolas at rest

Gondolas at rest

I read somewhere that in 1600 there were 10,000 gondolas in Venice. They made up the entire complement of private transportation, delivery wagon, garbage truck, and most other vehicles you think of as part of everyday travel within a city.

Today, there are a few hundred. They are a tourist business, no longer part of the ordinary life of Venetian citizens. Venice is like that, a city capitalizing on her history, her glorious past, for those of us who find it intriguing and romantic. Tourism with this intensity changes a place. Instead of neighborhood grocery stores, butcher shops, and stalls, the shops are filled with masks, Murano glass, and souvenir t-shirts, hats, shopping bags. One friend likened it to a theme park, a kind of Disneyland, where everything you see seems to be there for the benefit of paying tourists. And a theme park is not like a real city where people live, work, raise families.

Most telling to me was an early morning walk around the Piazza San Marco and then through the neighborhood to the south. We saw almost nobody hurrying to work, no corner bar where people scanned the paper with their morning espresso before starting the day. These were images we had seen over and over again in the non-tourist towns. Not here. We saw a couple of men sweeping the piazza–plastic and glass bottles, wrappers from ice cream and candy, the litter of thousands of tourists. Nobody walking the dog, nobody taking the children to school. In fact, we saw almost no children except occasionally the overheated, oversugared children of tourists.

But I was talking about gondolas. Along the canals there are gondola stands, like waterborne taxi stands, with gondoliers in their striped shirts. Some call out, “Gondola, gondola,” hoping to hustle up business. Others lean against a wall, smoking or reading the paper, but keeping one eye on passers-by for signs of interest. I didn’t hear any of them singing.

We had a conversation with a girl from a family of gondoliers, and when my husband sang the first few notes of “O Sole Mio” she cringed. “That’s a song from Naples. People always sing songs from Naples here,” she added with disgust. When I asked what would be a good Venetian song to sing, she just shrugged, leaving me to think that singing gondoliers were just a myth, another aspect of them park hype.

Though their numbers are shrinking, you just can’t see a gondola without thinking of Venice. Here are some images to bring Venice to mind today.

The Venetian taxi stand.

The Venetian taxi stand.


Waiting for a fare.

Waiting for a fare.

Gondolier with cell phone.

Gondolier with cell phone.

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs

A gondola under the Bridge of Sighs


12 thoughts on “Gondola: An iconic image of Venice

    • Agreed, Philip. It was definitely a mixed bag. I am sure I would have enjoyed Venice more if the history there was more familiar to me. Almost all my historical research has been about the south of Italy.

    • One way to assure that you don’t run into hoards of tourists, from Rishikesh to Venezia, to, in the exquisite words of Kahlil Gibran: “Awaken at dawn with a winged heart….” It is thus that I have seen the world as it would have been centuries ago. I even once walked under the moon and stars – around 5:30AM – in the Borghese Gardens a` Roma, with just the pines, the palms, and the sculpted fountains for company..until the bemused gardeners came on duty.

  1. Then there is the experience one can have by arising early, so early that the men on the traghetto won’t take any money for the fare, and smile as one sits, happy and alone, at the front of the boat as it heads into the rising sun on the Gran Canal…

  2. I understand the dangers of expectations and, never having been to Venice, I would have expected something like those floating gardens at xochimilko (sp?). Thank you, Sandy, for once again enlightening us with an honest updated portrayal of modern day Venitia.

  3. Nothing can destroy the incredible romance of Venice. Today it is over run by thousands of tourists falling under Her magical spell. Italy is a gigantic historic Museum and our journey into Venice is to behold her beautiful, architecture, art ,history and of course Italians. Venice, alas has become big business but her beauty reins supreme.

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