A “Black Swan” on the Canals of Venice
BY AWAKE! WRITER IN ITALY
SURROUNDED by damp walls, arched stone bridges, arabesque windows, and balconies full of flowers, it glides along a canal. It is black, elegant, and silent. From a distance it resembles a black swan. Even though its body is made of wood and its neck, far from being soft and feathered, is metal, it moves among the canals of Venice, Italy, with the same grace as that noble bird. It is a gondola, which according to some is the most famous boat in the world. What is its origin? Why is it so popular? What makes it different from other boats?
It is not easy to pinpoint exactly when the first gondola appeared, though some believe that it was in the 11th century C.E. The first time it was depicted in paintings was toward the end of the 15th century. Yet, it was during the 17th and 18th centuries that it took on the characteristic appearance that makes it so famous and different from all other boats. The gondola already had a flat base, but during this period the boat started to develop its distinctive elongated shape and iron prow.
It is equally difficult to get to the origin of the gondola’s name. Some say that the word “gondola” is derived from the Latin cymbula, which was the name of a small boat, or from conchula, diminutive of concha, which means “shell.”
Typical of Venice
What we can be sure of is the strong link between this boat and Venice. In fact, the gondola is perhaps the city’s most important symbol. Think of all the pictures of Venice that feature the gondola.
Something else closely links this boat to its city. To travel through the canals in a gondola “is a completely different way of discovering Venice,” says Roberto, a gondolier who accompanies tourists on the canals there. “You don’t just see the normal sights, you discover the very heart of Venice.” The famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said that aboard this boat he felt like “the Master of the Adriatic Sea, as does any Venetian as soon as he lays back in his gondola.” Roberto says: “The very slow pace of the gondola harmonizes perfectly with the spirit of Venice. Gently cradled on soft cushions, you have the sensation of finally having all the time in the world.”
Peculiarities of the Gondola
As you observe a gondola, you might be surprised that it moves in a straight line, given that there is only one oar fixed to the right of the boat on an oar post. Logic might suggest that without continual adjustments the boat would veer to one side and sail around in circles—but it doesn’t. Why not? Gilberto Penzo, an expert on historic boats, writes: “If we use the metaphor that compares the structure of the boat to a torso in which the keel represents the backbone and the frame represents the ribs, then we could say that the gondola suffers from a serious form of scoliosis.” In other words, the hull is asymmetrical—the right side is narrower than the left by 9 inches [24 cm]. As a result, the gondola floats with its right flank lower in the water than its left. This lopsidedness compensates for the thrust made by the single oar and also for the weight of the gondolier standing off-center as he rows, enabling the gondola to keep a straight course.
A characteristic element of this “swan” is its neck, or prow. Apart from the iron stern, this is the only metal part of the boat. The prow is “so striking and distinctive,” writes author Gianfranco Munerotto, “that it sticks in the mind of whoever sees it for the first time.” Originally, the iron prow served to counterbalance the weight of the gondolier rowing at the stern, but now it has only a decorative function. Tradition has it that the elements of the prow represent the six sestieri, or neighborhoods, into which the city of Venice is divided, while the small tooth at the back of the neck represents the Venetian island called Giudecca. The S-like double curve of the prow is said to represent the shape of the Grand Canal of Venice.
Another peculiarity is the gondolas’ black “plumage.” All sorts of explanations have been offered as to why these boats are black. According to one, during the 16th and 17th centuries, the ostentation, colors, and luxury of gondolas were so exaggerated that in an effort to encourage sobriety, the Venetian Senate was forced to fine the owners of gondolas that were too flashy. But many preferred to pay the fines rather than give up their decorations. As a result, a magistrate decreed that all gondolas should be painted black. Another explanation is that black served as a sign of mourning for the thousands who died from the Black Death. Still others say that the blackness of the gondolas highlighted to best advantage the ultrawhite complexion of Venetian noblewomen. The truth is much less complicated. At least initially, the black color came from the pitch that was used to make gondolas waterproof.
After gently gliding over still waters on the back of a black swan, you return to the steps of the canalside quay where your journey began. As your eyes follow the gondola into the distance, you may wonder, perhaps for a moment, if the swan will turn back its long neck and smooth down some ruffled feathers.
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The frame of the gondola is asymmetrical
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The distinctive prow
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Roberto, a gondolier on the canals of Venice
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