01 June, 2006

9. Pimping the ride

The decorative prow of a gondola is called the 'ferro' – the 'iron' – but its purpose is not just decorative, it is a counterbalancing weight for the gondolier who stands at the rear of the shallow and short-drafted boat.

With minor variations, as in these two not quite identical examples, all gondolas carry the same shaped ferro. Like many other traditions, and despite considerable research, nobody is quite sure any longer why the ferro is shaped the way it is. Local legend has it that the six prongs or 'pettini' in the front represent the six sestieri, or districts, of the city; the single prong pointing to the rear represents the island of Giudecca, just south of the main city; the 'S' shaped curve represents the Grand Canal; the big blade above is a stylized version of the cap traditionally worn by the Doge of Venice; and the lunette formed by the bottom of the blade and the topmost forward prong symbolizes the Rialto bridge. That explanation seems to me to be a contrived invention, but it is appealing and possible even if slightly implausible. The truth, which we will now never know, may be something else entirely, and probably much more prosaic.

The rules for the construction of a gondola are very strict, specifying in some cases to the millimeter what its dimensions should be. For instance, to ensure its asymmetry, the right side of the boat must be 24mm less than the left; it must be 10.75 meters long and 1.38 meters wide.

There is even a city law which governs what colour a gondola must be. When Venice was at its apogee in terms of wealth and ostentation, gondolas became competitively decorative – like a drug-dealer's car in Hollywood, they were 'pimped up' to outrageous levels, allowing 'les nouveau riches' with bling to upstage those with rank and nobility. As a result, in 1562, a Sumptuary Law was passed by the nobles in council that decreed all gondolas henceforth would be black. And so they remain to this day.

It might seem to have been a rather heavy-handed use of legislative power, but in retrospect, it was not a bad thing. Had this sumptuary law not been passed, then it is very probable that Venetian gondolas would today be as crassly commercial as London taxicabs, which always used to be plain and unpretentiously black, but are now just mobile billboards for phone companies, airlines, and condoms. Who wants to see that on the Grand Canal?

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