Didst ever see a Gondola? For fear
You should not, I’ll describe it to you exactly:
‘Tis a long cover’d boat that’s common here,
Carved at the prow, built lightly, but compactly;
Row’d by two rowers, each call’d ‘Gondolier,’
It glides along the water looking blackly,
Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,
Where none can make out what you say or do.
(Lord Byron, Beppo)
The gondolas he knew, though, no longer exist, except in museums—like this one at Venice’s Palazzo Ducale. Yes, it needs some work. But if we look at the modern gondolas, with their shiny black and gold, we can get a sense of what it was like in its heyday.
Unlike today’s gondolas, which leave passengers in public view—and at the mercy of the weather—the gondola of Byron’s time offered privacy and comfort. The cabin or felze had a door, casement windows, Venetian blinds, and a cushy interior.
Today, a gondola ride is mainly for tourists. But in the early 1800s, even though Venice had fallen on hard times, these boats were still the city’s taxis and limousines. According to Byron’s friend Hobhouse:
“Our lacquey told us that there are about 2,000 public gondolas and that those houses which used to keep five and six boats now keep one – or none. We saw some pushed by men in livery. It is an imagined speed with which they glide along, but great dexterity is shown in cutting round the corners of the lanes or little canals through the lighters and little boats.”—excerpted from the Venice section of Peter Cochran’s fantastic online presentation of John Cam Hobhouse’s) diaries, which I cannot recommend highly enough.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.