Every tourist has at least dreamt of taking a ride on one of them. They’re ancient, pop up in paintings from centuries ago and also in movies. But do you know what they really meant for Venice? Or why they are all black? Well, you’re in just the right place, because we’re about to tell you some interesting facts about the history of gondolas.

Venice and its gondolas: user guide

Today gondolas are less than 500, and mainly used by tourists looking for a romantic experience, or simply for a slow water tour of Venice on its most characteristic boat. But let’s admit it: Venetians use them too, though not as often as they did in the past.

Indeed, Venetians can be quite romantic, when they want to: when they decide to propose to their girlfriend, some of them include a charming gondola ride in their program for the evening. And sometimes you may see a bride going to meet her future husband in a church on a gondola. But this is not the norm.

Truth is, Venetians prefer motor boats, and their popularity led to a slow decrease in the number of both gondolas and squeri, i.e. the shipyards where these and other rowing boats were built. Now there are only 6 of them in Venice.

But there was a time when the city burst with squeri and had more than 10,000 gondolas!

The history of gondolas and how they changed over time

We know that Venetians have been using gondolas at least since 1094, when the Doge Vitale Falier first mentioned them in an official document. But we can only know what they looked like from the 15th century onwards, i.e. when artists start including them in paintings.

This is why experts learnt how gondolas changed throughout history:

  • in the 15th century, they were shorter and larger, carried both people and things and the iron prow- and stern-heads were two thin metal bars;
  • in the 16th century, they started getting glamorous: they only transported people. Actually, only the wealthy. And they were slightly apt to show off: irons got bigger and bigger, the colours of the hull became more gaudy and its decorations showy. The government of the Republic of Venice eventually got fed up with this showiness: towards the end of the century, it decreed that gondolas had to be black. And if a nobleman decided he couldn’t care less about this law, he had to pay through the nose for his violation;
  • in the 19th century, gondolas reached their final shape: prow and stern rose a little higher from water, the boat got thinner and 11 meters long and the size of the prow-head was fixed. All of these changes helped gondoliers, because they made their balance and the steering of the boat much easier.

You can discover all of this and much more – for instance, what it feels like to take a tour on this boat – on our Manufacturing a gondola experience. In the meantime, here’s a nice video on the origins and uses of gondolas in ancient times: enjoy it!