I have written before of that quintessential symbol of Venice, setting for my novel The Echoes of Love: the gondola. But what of its pilot, the gondolier? In my novel, when the lovers take a gondola ride, I write simply that ‘the gondolier stood perched at the stern behind them, silently and splendidly like a Florentine statue, moving the craft with skilled ease over the water’. He is but a peripheral character in my story, but not in the story of Venice itself. There, the gondolier has been integral to the workings, the culture, the beauty of the city for many hundreds of years.
The profession of gondolier is a respectable one, and in the city generations of men in one family take up the pole. Sadly, whereas back in the 17th and 18th centuries some ten thousand gondoliers were employed in the city, today the number of these iconic craft on the waterways has fallen to just a few hundred. But those on the job are dedicated professionals – in fact, a thousand-year-old prestigious guild, La Categoria, controls the profession.
To become a member of this elite, which awards only four hundred and twenty-five gondolier licences, is no mean feat. First, you need to be well-connected. As a gondolier told the Telegraph newspaper, “You are either born into it or racolto (lifted up) or trova (found) by another gondolier”. Then the gondolier must go through:
- A period of training.
- A period of apprenticeship.
- A major exam, in which the gondolier must prove his expert knowledge of Venice and its landmarks and history; his ability to converse with people from many different nationalities; and his skill in maneuvering the craft along the sometimes narrow waterways.
Then, having passed the exam, whose results are published in the local paper (plenty of ‘son of’ and ‘brother of’ references precede the names), the gondolier works as a substitute for a year, then has the right to either inherit or buy a licence. For centuries, each of these novice gondoliers was male, but in 2010 GiorgiaBoscolo became Venice’s first female gondolier.
Why such stringent requirements?you may be wondering. Well, for a start navigating a gondola is not as easy as one may assume. Telegraph journalist Teresa Machanwrites a most amusing account of her lesson with a gondolier, in which she is told:
“Please don’t squeeze the oar – there’s no need, it’s wood.”
“Breathe, dear, breathe.”
“Don’t look at the oar, look ahead. Do you watch the pedals or the steering wheel when you drive?”
“I’m hot and bothered and we haven’t even moved,”Teresa writes.“My admiration for the art of gondoliering is growing by the minute.”
But the gondolier profession is not just about skill; it is about representing the city. To be a good gondolier is to be passionate about the setting in which you work. In this new film a gondolier compares Venice to a woman “of a ripe old age” who is “caressed, cared for and doted on”. His attire may not be what one imagines for a gondolier, but his attitude certainly is – he exudes respect for the city, and that is, ultimately, what the initiation process and the licence are designed to foster and secure.
I will leave you with a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, lover of Venice. If only all gondoliers were this romantic – then I think we would all be flocking to Venice, and La Categoria would need to greatly expand to accommodate the demand!
The Venetian Gondolier
Here rest the weary oar! – soft airs
Breathe out in the o’erarching sky;
And Night! – sweet Night – serenely wears
A smile of peace; her noon is nigh.
Where the tall fir in quiet stands,
And waves, embracing the chaste shores,
Move o’er sea-shells and bright sands,-
Is heard the sound of dipping oars.
Swift o’er the wave the light bark springs,
Love’s midnight hour draws lingering near:
And list! – his tuneful viol strings
The young Venetian Gondolier.
Lo! on the silver-mirrored deep,
On earth, and her embosomed lakes,
And where the silent rivers sweep,
From the thin cloud fair moonlight breaks
Soft music breathes around, and dies
On the calm bosom of the sea;
Whilst in her cell the novice sighs
Her vespers to her rosary.
At their dim altars bow fair forms,
In tender charity for those,
That, helpless left to life’s rude storms,
Have never found this calm repose.
The bell swings to its midnight chime,
Relieved against the deep blue sky!-
Haste! – dip the oar again! – ’tis time
To seek Genevra’s balcony.