Gondolas and gondoliers are a cornerstone of Venetian culture. Whenever you pick up a travel brochure or watch an advertisement for Venice, you will always see gondolas floating down the waterways. Though this image is an unofficial symbol of Venice, not many people know how much work goes into the job of a gondolier.
I didn’t, at least not until a few weeks ago. I was scrolling through Pinterest when I saw a little blurb about Venetian gondoliers. It said it is one of the most sought after positions and required 400 hours of apprenticeship. Additionally, only a certain amount of licenses are issued, so someone would have to die or retire before it was passed on. I thought to myself, this sounds unreal, but after I did my research, it proved to be entirely accurate.
The first mention of gondoliers was found in a letter from a Venetian citizen over 1,000 years ago. When Venice barred horses from the streets in the 14th-century, the popularity of gondolas exploded. By the 16th-century, about 10,000 gondoliers were working the Venetian waterways. There are even stories of gondolas being used in battles on the Adriatic Sea. Once steamboats were invented, Venice saw a decline in gondoliers, but the tradition did not die out completely.
Today, there are between 425 to 433 licensed gondoliers working the Venice canals. The licenses used to be passed down from father to son or to another male relative if no sons were borns. The tradition was altered in 2010 when a license was passed down to a daughter, making her the first female gondolier in Venice. However, A gondolier needs more than a license to operate in Venice.
Since it is a family custom, children will often start learning the basics at a young age. This includes the Voga all Veneta, the Venetian style of rowing where you are standing up and facing forward. Aspiring gondoliers must also pass a rowing and swimming test before they are accepted in the ‘Arte del Gondoliere’ school. They study language, history, local geography, and rowing for about a year before their final exams. Afterward, they register with the Chamber of Commerce and work another year as a substitute gondolier before acquiring a license from their family member.
All the hard work does pay off; a gondolier’s estimated yearly income is about $150,000. This is also a plus considering a gondola can cost up to $57,000.
However, these individuals do not go into the business for the money. They become gondoliers to keep this rich Venetian tradition alive. They are staunch supporters of tourism in a city that has begun to rebel against the growing crowds of tourists arriving every year. The gondoliers depend on these travelers for their livelihoods.
The next time you are in a gondola in Venice, hopefully, you will have a new appreciation for the person operating the vessel. They have put their body and soul into providing the most authentic experience for every passenger.