Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Gondolas then & now

Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Loretta reports:

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)

Byron’s description of a gondola opens the first chapter of my “Venice book,” Your Scandalous Ways.

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.


Stephanie Thornton said...

That's a great poem by Byron!

We'll be in Venice in a few weeks. I've been before (love that city!), but my daughter will get to take her first gondola ride. And she's only 5!

Di said...

I was in Venice for a few days in 2000. Just long enough to get a bit oriented. Would love to get back and stay for at least a week. The gondolas (& the gondoliers) were the coolest - sort of surreal - like a live historical theme park.

JaneGS said...

I'm almost done with Peter Ackroyd's Venice: Pure City, and am enthralled. So looking forward to visiting the city in the first time in 2014.

Didn't know about John Cam Hobhouse’s diaries, so thanks for the link, and for the excerpt from Byron.

Must try to read Byron!

Beth Elliott said...

How Byron's words flow, as smooth as velvet. I greatly enjoyed 'Your Scandalous Ways', it was such fun.
Thank you for the link to Hobhouse [I'm doing a series of novels on Byron-mad girls, and one follows him to Venice.]

Anonymous said...

Lovely! Venice, gondolas and romance. It all sounds so perfect. It was interesting to know that instead of becoming more comfortable, gondolas have become less so.

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