The Gondola – a symbol of Venice

What could be more romantic than a sunset gondola ride along the Grand Canal in Venice, gliding past grand palazzi or exploring the network of narrow waterways in one of the most beautiful cities in the world? 

Venice has few roads so gondolas, with their slim hulls and flat undersides, have been used for a thousand years to negotiate the narrow canals and transport goods from the markets to the palazzi. There were nearly ten thousand gondolas in use in the 17th and 18th centuries but today there are only four hundred and these are almost entirely used by tourists for pleasure trips.

The long and narrow shape of the gondola continually evolved over time, until the mid-twentieth century when the government prohibited any further modifications. The modern gondola is up to eleven metres long and just over a metre and a half wide. In the late 1800s, boatbuilder Domenico Tramontin developed the asymmetrical shape we see today.  One side is twenty-five centimetres longer than the other, which gives the boat a gentle curve like a banana. This modification allows the gondolier to row from one side of the boat with his single oar, the smooth passage of the boat uninterrupted by having to change sides to keep on course. 

Originally, gondolas were working boats made watertight by painting them with pitch but, over time, this gave way to bright paintwork with rich carpets and embroidered cushions where used by the nobility. In 1562 the sumptuary laws decreed that all gondolas must be painted black.

Canaletto’s paintings depict a much lower prow with a higher ferro than we see today. This is the brass or stainless steel ornament on the front of the boat that acts as a counterweight for the gondolier who stands near the stern. The S shaped ferro has six prongs facing forwards, each representing the six districts of Venice and one prong facing backwards to represent the island of Giudecca.

The gondolier rows the boat with one long oar supported by a decoratively carved wooden post called a forcola, which allows him to effortlessly change direction and speed. Venetian legend has it that gondoliers are born with webbed feet to allow them to walk on water and their extensive knowledge of the canals is passed on from father to son. The gondola has been a long-time symbol of but modern life and the tourists’ insatiable desire to enjoy the ‘Venetian Experience’ is eroding both the gondolas and the City of Water. The wake from today’s motorboats causes continual waves to crash against the ancient churches and buildings, damaging the foundations. The same wake from powerboats decreases the life of a gondola from approximately forty years to ten.

The world will be an infinitely poorer place if fragile Venice sinks beneath the water, along with her much-loved gondolas.

Come to Venice. Please, Phoebe, do not fail me.

Venice, 1919

Seventeen years ago, the grand Venetian Palazzo degli Angeli was Phoebe Wyndham’s home; now, the neglected walls of the palazzo are just a haunting reminder of all she has lost.

Arriving back in Italy after a plea from her estranged relative, the Contessa di Sebastiano, the recently widowed Phoebe is shocked to discover her aunt is dead and the palazzo now belongs to her.

All she wants to do is sell the property and return home. However, when a dark family secret is exposed, the shocking deception rocks Phoebe to her very core, and she vows not to leave the City of Water without first unravelling the truth from the lies.

As Phoebe searches for answers, she finds herself growing closer to two very different men. But, when her camera catches something more sinister than the faded grandeur of Venice, Phoebe begins to question who she can really trust and whether her aunt’s death was truly an accident after all . . .

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