“How light we move, how softly, ah! / Were life but as the gondola!”
Arthur Hugh Clough
If one had to single out one defining aspect of Venice it would be the gondolas. Their origins are ancient and mysterious, but certainly by the fifteenth century as we know from the paintings of Carpaccio, they had assumed substantially their modern form, though they were often brightly coloured and luxuriously decorated. It was as a result of a sumptuary edict of 1562 that the gondola assumed its present funereal aspect and there was one important later modification. In the nineteenth century the boat builder Domenico Tramontin discovered that by making gondolas asymmetrical, you could improve their speed and turning ability. The propelling of the gondola calls for great skill and a particular movement which Henry James characterized as a curious mixture of grace and awkwardness. Mark Twain found himself admiring the “gondolier's marvelous skill more than I do the sculptured palaces we glide among”:
“He cuts a corner so closely, now and then, or misses another gondola by such an imperceptible hair-breadth that I feel myself “scrooching,” as the children say, just as one does when a buggy wheel grazes his elbow. But he makes all his calculations with the nicest precision, and goes darting in and out among a Broadway confusion of busy craft with the easy confidence of the educated hackman”.
But gondoliers had other admirable skills. Joseph Spence recorded in 1732 that there was one that could recite all of Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, and they were also admired for their fine singing voices. Their good looks and highly toned physiques made them the object of romantic interest to women such as Effie Ruskin, who described their gondolier as “a very handsome fellow of the fine Giorgione red brown complexion” but also to gay men such as the writer John Addington Symonds who lived in a menage à trois with a gondolier called Angelo and his wife, and also, possibly John Singer Sargent who painted a number of studies of gondoliers. The enclosure and anonymity of gondolas made them ideal venues for amorous liaisons, but for those simply content to revel in the beauty of the lagoon, there was no better form of transport. “May is better than April” wrote Henry James, “but June is best of all… then the gondola is your sole habitation and you spend your days between sea and sky”.