It is estimated that there were eight to ten thousand gondolas during the 17th and 18th century. There are just over four hundred in active service today, virtually all of them used for hire by tourists. Those few that are in private ownership are either hired out to Venetians for weddings or used for racing. Even though the Gondola by now has become a widely publicized icon of Venice, in the times of the Republic of Venice it was by far not the only means of transportation: on the map of Venice created by Jacopo de' Barbari in 1500 only a fraction of the boats are gondolas, the majority of boats are batellas, caorlinas, galleys and other boats - by now only a handful of batellas survive, and caorlinas are used for racing only.
Gondolas at SS. Giovanni e Paolo in a painting by Michele Marieschi
During their heyday as a means of public transports, teams of four men—three oarsmen and a fourth person, primarily shore-based and responsible for the booking and administration of the gondola (Il Rosso Riserva)—would share ownership of a gondola. However as the gondolas became more of a tourist attraction than a mode of public transport all but one of these cooperatives and their offices have closed. The category is now protected by the Institution for the Protection and Conservation of Gondolas and Gondoliers, headquartered in the historical center of Venice.
Traghetti - foot passenger gondolas across the Grand Canal
The historical gondola was quite different from its modern evolution- the paintings of Canaletto and others show a much lower prow, a higher "ferro", and usually two rowers. The banana-shaped modern gondola was developed only in the 19th century by the boat-builder Tramontin, whose heirs still run the Tramontin boatyard. The construction of the gondola continued to evolve until the mid-20th century, when the city government prohibited any further modifications.
The oar or rèmo is held in an oar lock known as a fórcola. The forcola is of a complicated shape, allowing several positions of the oar for slow forward rowing, powerful forward rowing, turning, slowing down, rowing backwards, and stopping. The ornament on the front of the boat is called the fèrro (meaning iron) and can be made from brass, stainless steel, or aluminium. It serves as decoration and as counterweight for the gondolier standing near the stern.
Gondolas parked at their moorings
Gondolas are handmade using 8 different types of wood (fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime) and are composed of 280 pieces. The oars are made of beech wood. The left side of the gondola is made longer than the right side. This asymmetry causes the gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke. It is a common misconception that the gondola is a paddled vessel when the correct term is rowed i.e. "I rowed my gondola to work".
Gondolier in Venice
The profession of gondolier is controlled by a guild, which issues a limited number of licenses granted after periods of training and apprenticeship, and a major comprehensive exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills, and practical skills in handling the gondola typically necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals.
The gondola is also one of the vessels typically used in both ceremonial and competitive regattas, rowing races held amongst gondoliers using the technique of Voga alla Veneta.
The origin of the word "gondola" has never been satisfactorily established, despite many theories.