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The black swans of Venice


Beautiful Italy – City segrets

by Natalie Marino

The black swans of venice

The black gondolas have continued for centuries to be the characteristic symbol of Venice, the city of the serenissima. People, systems change, but they keep dancing across the channel. Did you know that horses and chariots once ruled over Venice? And the gondolas? How and why did it appear? And why are their colors black? Let’s explore together …

The Venetian word “la gondola” means Venetian boat. The gondola does not have a precise date of birth, but there is a document in which it appears for the first time in history: it is a parchment dated 1094. This document contains claims that the residents of Loreo are allowed to carry such boats in Venice..

Over the centuries the gondola has profoundly changed its appearance, both from an aesthetic and functional point of view. Established around the early 1000s, it soon became the main means for the Venetians to move around the lagoon. Initially, however, the gondola was not a means for everyone, because not everyone could afford one. The vehicle had become a sort of status for nobles and aristocrats, who used to move around the lagoon aboard these vehicles. For the poor class or the middle class, the gondola remained a difficult dream that only a few could afford. In the past it was possible to witness the parade of numerous gondolas on a daily basis, which is now relived during the famous Historical Regatta, during which numerous gondolas dating back to the 16th century parade over the lagoon waters. At the time numerous gondolas alternated on the lagoon waters, decorated with showy golden details. Today, however, all this is no longer possible and the gondolas all appear black, without any type of decoration or color.

Before there were horses!

In medieval Venice people also went on horseback. One of the bells of the bell tower of San Marco from 1279 is called “Trottiera” because it rang when the Grand Council met and the patricians had to trot their mounts to arrive in time. A law of 1291 forbade passing on horseback through Piazza San Marco at certain times of the day, especially in the morning. Another law of 1359 allowed you to ride on the Rialto as long as you did not put your horses into a gallop.

Prestige vehicle of the nobles: the gondola

Over time, due to these bans, there has been a decrease in the use of horses and chariots. However, the function of the gondola grew hand in hand. For the Venetian nobles, the family boat assumes the prestige that a carriage has on land. As in the courtyards of mainland buildings, there are remittances with four or five carriages, so four or five gondolas are moored to the “Paline” (poles) in front of the Venetian noble houses.

The pictorial representations dating back to the fifteenth-sixteenth century show a boat significantly different from the current one. In Gentile Bellini’s Miracle of the Cross Fallen in the Canal of San Lorenzo (visible in the Accademia Galleries), dating back to 1500, the gondolas appear shorter, wider and less slender than the current ones and above all without asymmetries. The bow and stern decks, where the gondolier is positioned, are flat and very low compared to the surface of the water. The irons, both at the bow and at the stern, are made up of two short and thin metal rods. The rower’s forcola appears flat and essential, without elbows.

The desire to appear means that the rowers are two, one at the stern and one at the bow and the “Felze” (Superstructure, mostly disassembled, placed at the center of the Venetian gondola to shelter passengers) is added as a social role of ostentation of those who use it. The gondolier, like the postillion, looks ahead; he has to see where to go and he has to stand up to give direction and watch the bottom of the canals to prevent the gondola from running aground. The most important gondolier is not the one who is in the stern, who governs and directs the boat, but the audition, the one who is in the bow, because he is in contact with the “gentlemen”, extends his arm to the quests and helps them to get on and off and perform service functions. The gondola, shiny and elegant, must lend itself to holding all the refined decorations in wood, metal and fabrics.

Fantasy gondolas and gondoliers

The Venice of the sixteenth century is immersed in colour. The noble houses that flank the Grand Canal are all frescoed, the “black Saracen” gondoliers who are part of the service staff of the Venetian noble houses are in great vogue, wearing brightly coloured liveries, fashionable two-tone socks, and wide straw hats. The noble families owned one or more gondolas with which they were transported for business or pleasure. The so-called frescoes, occasions for meeting and social life, were real boat rides that took place around the city.

Song from batèlo

This habit also gave rise to a musical genre, the song da batèlo, which had its maximum splendour in the eighteenth century but is still widely practised today for tourism purposes.

Luxury rides on the canals

The guild of gondoliers has always been governed by a statute, called Mariègola, in which the duties of the members were established. It’s all a competition to appear. Too much luxury, the seventeenth century inherits the splendor of the sixteenth century, the gondolas keep pace, the noble families compete in showing off more and more extravagant and luxurious boats, columns, statues, animals and carvings of all kinds transform the gondolas into floating zoos or gardens of fauns and nymphets.

Black Gondolas

There was a limitation when this embellishment was too exaggerated. In 1584 a law entitled “Provisions for Pompeii” prohibited the “carved and gilded” gondolas and ordered gondoliers to wear cloth or other fabrics of little value.

In 1609 the Senate of La Serenissima decided that the gondolas should all be painted black and covered with a woolen cloth of the same color, thus becoming all the same. The decree came after the introduction of penalties for those who decorated the gondolas, which however proved to be completely useless, because many bourgeois preferred to pay the penalty without renouncing to embellish their gondola at will. competition on the decoration of gondolas had become so great that the competition itself was excessive in the eyes of most. It was therefore necessary to impose a certain moderation by law which imposed a single color for the gondolas and which has continued to the present day. In this way, excessive ostentation would be avoided and, on the other hand, the more water-resistant black and pitch color would be used in the gondolas, while the gondolas would be in use for a long time.

Other theories on the color of gondolas

The theory just seen seems to be the most reliable one to explain the color that gondolas still have, precisely because it is substituted by the presence of a historical document that testifies to their validity.

But there are further theories that try to explain this singular habit of the Venetians.

One of these links the black color of the gondolas to the fall of the great Republic of Venice. It seems that it was decided to paint all the gondolas black as a sign of mourning to commemorate this tragic event.

Others argue instead that the black color of the gondolas is a sign of mourning to commemorate the 50,000 victims caused by the plague of 1630. But it was instead rejected by historians.

The culture of today in the West would lead one to think that the color black is a sign of mourning. This was certainly not the case, however, centuries ago, when for example in Venice, the color that identified mourning was red.

On the other hand, black at the time was synonymous with elegance and for this reason it was chosen to decorate the gondolas.

The sunset of the Serenissima

The dawn of the nineteenth century marks the sunset of the Serenissima, with it the role of the aristocracy as a governing class ceases, Venice is no longer the capital, dominated by foreigners, it becomes impoverished, becoming a melancholy destination for romantic travellers. Slowly the role of the gondola changes, the “de Casada” boats, owned by the patrician families, give way to rental boats and parade boats that transport visitors from the landing points of the mainland to the hotels. With the arrival of the railway comes growing tourism, and the first motorboats begin to plough the waters of the Grand Canal. Although people, roles and means have changed, the Gondola still reigns today in the canals of Venice. We watch with admiration the dances they perform on the canals.

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