The History of Gondolas
The city of Venice lays a net of ornate and cosmopolitan architecture across 117 small islands that sit in an otherwise unremarkable saltwater lagoon in northeast Italy -- where the rear, high ankle of Italy's boot shape touches the Adriatic Sea. Crusades launched from Venice in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, and it was a point of entry for silks and spice coming from the East to Europe.
This is to say that the history of Venice is the history of its water. It's a city built not so much at the edge of the ocean as on top of it, and rather than flowing around the city, water flows through it. And so instead of a traditional city's taxis, Venice developed water taxis -- gondolas.
In 1094, the Doge Vitale Faliero, whose carved image sits next to the high altar of St. Mark's Basilica, gave the people of Venice a handful of gondolas, nominally to ease travel around the city, but also because he wanted to prevent a popular revolt of the kind that had put him into power in 1084. Gondolas soon caught on, though not among the peasants, as was his intent. Instead, gondolas quickly became the transportation of choice for Venice's upper crust.
In the late 15th century and early 16th century, gondolas in nearly their modern form appeared in paintings by artists Gentile Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio and Giovani Mansuetti. And by the end of the Italian Renaissance in the 17th century, about 9,000 gondolas floated through the city's canals, carrying moneyed passengers about their everyday business.
By 1633, Italian extravagance had gotten out of line, according to the Venetian government, and a "sumptuary" law was enacted requiring all gondolas to be painted black. That is, all gondolas except for the boats owned by the government -- these were exempt and thus able to outshine the boats of private citizens.
The post-Renaissance gondola was optimized for travel, with a low passenger cabin called a felze providing protection from the elements. But in the 20th century, as tourism supplanted transportation as the gondola's reason for being, the felze gave way to the awning, and then in the 1960s to the open boat we know today -- trading the privacy valued by earlier, noble travelers for an unobstructed view.
Today, there are about 400 licensed gondoliers ready to take you and yours for the ride of your lives.