Anatomy of a Gondola

Not just anyone can slap together marine plywood into the shape of a mini Viking longboat, call it a gondola and start transporting wide-eyed tourists. Instead, the manufacture of Venice's gondolas is regulated by hundreds of years of history, now written into law.

First and foremost, its design is based on function. A flat bottom allows a gondola to skim the canals only centimeters deep, and the use of a paddle (not a pole!) allows gondoliers to propel the boats in deeper water. Unfortunately, the traditional, flat-bottomed design also makes the gondola a bit tippy. Gondolas have a hard time alongside the large wakes of modern motorboats on the Grand Canal, a canal that flows like a reverse 'S' from north to south through the center of the city. A new gondola can cost 20,000 Euros or more, and while gondoliers are experts in their trade, a lightly bumpy ride isn't uncommon.

According to the craftsmen of the Domenico Tramontin e Figli boatyard, founded in 1884, traditionally the gondola is constructed from eight kinds of wood: solid oak for the sides, lightweight fir for the bottom, malleable cherry for the thwarts, larch for water resistance, bendable walnut for the frame, linden for reinforcement, mahogany for trim, and elm to bend alongside the walnut [source:]. These eight woods are used to sculpt the 280 interlocking parts that fit together like model pieces to form a gondola.

Just two metal pieces complement these woods. The ferro (for "iron") is the curving metal piece that sits at the gondola's bow. It acts as a counterweight to the gondolier who rows from the stern, which helps to keep the gondola's flat bottom level in the water. The ferro also keeps the gondola's bow free of dings and dents. The other metal piece, the risso, is an ornamental piece whose design is influenced by the shape of a seahorse, and which sits near the gondolier at the stern.

Also in service of keeping the flat bottom of the gondola flat in the water, the boat is asymmetrical -- the port side is 9 inches (23 centimeters) wider than the starboard [source: Britannica]. This, plus a slightly higher portside wall, balances the weight of the gondolier, who rows from starboard.

Also important to traditional gondola design is the forcola, or oarlock. Unlike the circle-on-a-stick oarlock of most rowboats, the forcola is a stylized curve of cured walnut wood, bent like a boomerang and notched to offer different nooks in which to place the oar for different kinds of rowing. The forcola is attached to the stern of the boat, where the gondolier stands to row. We'll discuss how the gondolier uses the forcola to row on the next page.

This design is a triumph of naval efficiency -- an Italian study showed that the amount of energy a gondolier expends to paddle himself and two passengers is equal to the energy expended by one person walking the same speed [source: Capelli, et al].