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.