by Donna Leon

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The international bestselling author delivers “a delightful look at the gondola as cultural icon, marvel of construction and object of romance and mystery” (Judith Malafronte, Opera News).

Of all the trademarks of Venice—and there are many, from the gilded Basilica of San Marco to the melancholy Bridge of Sighs—none is more ubiquitous than the gondola. In Gondola, the acclaimed “American with the Venetian heart,” tells the fascinating story of this famous boat, complete with gorgeous full-color illustrations (The Washington Post).

First used in medieval Venice as a deftly maneuverable getaway boat, the gondola evolved over the centuries into a floating pleasure palace, bedecked in silk, that facilitated the romantic escapades of the Venetian elite. Sumptuary laws turned it black—a gleaming, elegant hue for a boat manned by robust gondolieri in their iconic black-and-white-striped shirts and straw hats.

Each boat is carefully fashioned in a maestro’s workshop—though Leon also recounts a tale of an American friend who attempted to make a gondola all on his own. Once its arched prow pushes off from the dock, the single Venetian at its oar just might break out in a barcarole, the popular songs sung by gondolieri.

Please note this ebook edition does not include audio recordings.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802192523
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 03/10/2015
Series: Books That Changed the World
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 80
Sales rank: 285,178
File size: 49 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Donna Leon is the author of the internationally bestselling Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery series. The winner of the CWA Macallan Silver Dagger for Fiction, among other awards, Leon was born in New Jersey and has lived in Venice for thirty years.


Venice, Italy

Date of Birth:

February 28, 1942

Place of Birth:

Montclair, New Jersey


B.A., 1964; M.A. 1969; postgraduate work in English literature

Read an Excerpt


The Gondola as a Paradox

The stunned response of many people who come to Venice for the first time is to gasp in amazement at the glory of what they see. Magnificent buildings line up in chronological disarray; neighborhoods are connected to one another only by bridges; the Basilica of San Marco appears drunk on domes and gold, and most streets seem undecided about where they are going.

A suitable response to the city would be to laugh in amazement at the things that, by rights, should not be. Those buildings jostling one another are built on mud and water, aren't they? The historical and religious symbol of the city is a lion with wings, an aerodynamic and ornithological impossibility. Equally unlikely is the boat that is a palpable symbol of the city – the gondola – for it is, in open defiance of all shipbuilding logic, asymmetrical, longer on the right side. It is flat-bottomed and propelled by a standing man rowing from one side with a single oar. Further, in today's speed-obsessed world, this boat lacks a motor, generally moves at the pace of a walking man, and is no longer subjected to frequent design alterations to increase its speed or maneuverability.

This hardly sounds like a combination that is going to meet with great success, yet Venice was, for centuries, the center of the Western World in terms of wealth, luxury, and military might. Those apparently floating buildings were, in reality, firmly based on wealth and political stability. The lion was no docile tabby: the armies of Venice stormed the walls of Byzantium and conquered an empire, then sacked it and brought the booty home, where the gondola moved people and goods through the city quickly and easily. All three might have looked strange, but by heaven, they achieved all of this.

Once the most important city in the West, Venice is today a tiny provincial town of fewer than 60,000 residents. It can, however, be argued that it is the most beautiful city in the world as well as the best known. It's been there more than a thousand years. The buildings have been redesigned, stripped bare, reconstructed, flooded and burned. History has clipped the lion's wings as the city fell victim to the invading armies of the French, the Austrians, the Germans, and now the tourists. The gondola, too, has undergone countless changes in the centuries that gondolieri have been rowing it silently through the canals; the prow has gained height, and the boat has been made flatter and wider, then changed shape to its modern appearance. It was stripped bare of decoration and forced by law to be black. Yet it remains as unmistakable a symbol of a city as the Parthenon, the Coliseum, the World Trade Center. Those others are in ruins, or gone, but the gondola is still going about its quiet business of taking people from one place in the city to another. Ten centuries have passed, and it's still made by specialist artisans of the same types of wood; prow and stern are still protected by ornamented metal strips; and its gondoliere still moves it at an amble through the waterways of Venice.

Much about the city can be learned by a close look at the gondola, its construction and history, its place in the culture, the fascination with which it is viewed by Venetians and non-Venetians alike. La gondolais the longest-lived female in the city and the most fascinating. Like the pasts of many beautiful women, hers is clothed in mystery, and the stories told about her often conflict with one another. Her appearance has changed over the years; many men have adored her: Goethe, Rousseau, Chateaubriand. Though not a widow, she always wears black. Though of uncertain origins her true name can be pronounced only in Veneziano. "Gondola," when pronounced in Italian, sounds almost right, but not quite, for there should be no "l" in her name when it is said in her native dialect. Thus, no matter how often – like her home city – she is at the service of foreigners, she is destined to remain forever and completely Venexiana, as are the barcarole that accompany this book.

By taking a look at the gondola and the vital role she played in the founding of Venice, and hearing the music performed on her deck, one can perhaps enter into the life of the city in a new way: from the water, from the back doors, that part of the city familiar to those who know and love her best. It's a different point of view and, unlike much of the city today, entirely Venetian.


I Think I Could Do This

Because gondolas, to any of us who have lived in Venice for decades, are as common as yellow taxis to a New Yorker, we almost cease to notice them, and thus we seldom give them conscious thought. We passively observe that all other boats defer to them and give them right of way, and the shout of the gondolieri approaching a turn is part of the background noise of the city. If we use them at all, it is as a convenient traghetto service to cross the Grand Canal when we are in a hurry or burdened with produce from the Rialto Market. Thus it was only by force of coincidence that they their familiar invisibility entered my conscious mind, aroused my curiosity and, after some time, led to this book and disc.

About nine years ago, an American friend was given as a Christmas present – I believe it was meant to be a joke – the blueprints of a gondola, complete with detailed instructions. He opened the plans and began to spread them out on the dinner table. As he unfolded the paper, more and more bottles, plates, and cutlery had to be removed to the sideboard or taken back into the kitchen. The paper expanded. When the sides of the blueprint were hanging over the four sides of the table, he turned from them and began to read the instructions that accompanied them.

The other guests at the dinner were forced to balance their plates on their knees or abandon the idea of food altogether and content themselves with wine and conversation. If it is possible to ignore a person looming over a two-meter long blueprint, muttering to himself, then we ignored him. Until suddenly he said, his face alight with a vision of the finished gondola, "I think I could do this."

The other revelation also came at dinner, as is so often the case in Italy, though this was in a different part of the city and with different guests. A friend lives on the Grand Canal, which means glory and beauty and bliss and endless delight. It also means, alas, gondola-loads of tourists back and forth under the windows, and since these are the gondolas working with large groups of tourists, an accordionist and a singer are tossed in. (Oh, how tempting is that phrase.)

As we ate our risotto, we heard the – dare I use this word? – music approaching. The accordionist squeezed out some notes, and the voice of what I had once heard my Irish grandmother call "a whisky tenor" rose up to the mezzanine apartment, and the words of "O sole mio," flew up to scandalize us all.

At that point, the host's dachshund, Artù, leaped up (well, he struggled up because he was a dachshund) onto the wide windowsill, pitched his head back, and began to howl like what that same grandmother would call a banshee. Beside himself, either with the pain caused by the music – pain which we shared – or perhaps deluding himself that this noise came from his dog pack and he was being called upon to declare his solidarity with them, Artù howled his head off whilst the boatloads of tourists below snapped photographs and waved up at him. During this, the gondolier, not the tenor, shouted up, "Ciao, Artù. Che togo che ti xe." I have many friends who are singers: none of them has ever had a gondoliere call up to tell him what a wonderful singer he is, nor has any one of them been photographed, head back and howling, by boatloads of Japanese tourists.

Let me leave Artù to his art and return my attention to the Master Builder. Construction began, not in Venice but about an hour from the city, where my American friend had access to a complete carpenter's workshop with ample space to work on the boat. No, he is not a professional carpenter, though he has for years built cabinets, tables, doors, even an elaborate drop-front writing desk. But not, until then, had he thought of building a gondola. Alone.

A year passed. Every so often, I went to visit him and to have a look at the project, feeling not a little like Catherine the Great stopping by to see how the Hermitage was progressing. I spent the good part of one afternoon watching him curve the oak boards that would form the sides of the gondola. This required that they be kept wet on the top while he played a blowtorch across them from below as he molded the eleven-meter planks into the proper shape. The frame took a year, and then he began to insert the sancón and the piàna, the stabilizing bars that run from side to side of the bottom and would eventually be covered by the floorboards or pagiòl. I realized how much an exercise in three-dimensionality the construction was, for the two sides curve up – as if the boat were a giant lopsided banana – to encompass a hollow space, and the builder must continually calculate just what is next and where it is going to go in relation to the other pieces.

As another year passed, the area covered by his project expanded, until one room of the carpenter's workshop was filled with lengths of wood, rectangles of wood, rods and strips and pegs and pieces for which there is no English – and no Italian – name. Not only had a large section of the workshop been turned into uno squero, but one of his workbenches was now home to scores of oddly-shaped pieces of wood. Stranger still, the Italian carpenter often asked the American to explain to him the details of cutting and planing the nómbolo (side planks), pirón (wooden bolts and nails), and pontapìe(inclined wooden brace for the gondoliere's back foot). As to the trèsso, the carpenter's uncertainty might result from this definition given it: "listelli fissati sull'orlo interno di alcuni sancóni per sostenere rispettivamente il sentàr, le banchéte e il tristolìn da próva inferiore". Obviously, these are instructions that make sense only to a Venetian gondola builder. Eventually, the carpenter was to observe the creation of more than two hundred structural and semi-structural, functional and non-functional parts, including a large number of simple wooden planks. Here I should add that the gondola, unlike the jigsaw puzzle, does not come with ready-cut pieces. The person – though it is virtually unheard of that a single person should attempt it – who builds the boat has to cut each piece by hand or machine and shape it so precisely that it fits smoothly into the pieces around it. Water-tight, remember?

Another year passed, and my friend arrived at the trasto de mèso and began thinking about where to find the most beautiful fórcola, upon which the oar is braced, though I had learned enough by then to realize there was going to be no need of a fórcola for some time yet, at least a year. The fórcola can't be slipped into place until the entire boat is completed, but I chose to interpret his interest as optimism, not magical thinking. As the boat grew, the room began to clear: less space was taken up by unused pieces, just as the closer one comes to completing a puzzle, the fewer pieces lie loose on the table.

Towards the beginning of the fourth year, he reached the point of constructing the parti decorative, the sentolìna and the caenèla. By then, the carpenter had been transformed from a rent-collecting Saul to a Saint Paul, fully converted and eager to participate, although my friend allowed him to help only with heavy lifting, never with the actual work of construction.

When the frame was complete, it was necessary to caulk, which is done with thin strings of cotton that must be soaked in resin and then wedged into the tiny grooves between the interlocking boards from which the boat is built. These strings are sealed in place with repeated coats of resin; later, before it's painted, pitch will be used to seal the complete interior of the gondola.

While he's busy sealing up the boat to make sure it's watertight, let's go back to Artù, the Fritz Wunderlich of Palazzo Curti Valmarana. Through the days and evenings of a hot summer, the tourists floated by, the accordionist played, and Artù conquered. An American movie producer, hearing Artù in concert, talked of the possibility of his appearing in a cameo role in a new film version of Romeo e Giulietta. Even though we knew that the words of American film producers are as permanent as what is written on the waters of the Grand Canal, a few of us permitted ourselves an evening discussing costumes and shooting angles. I remember one heated discussion of whether Artù's right profile was better than his left and from which side, therefore, to film him. I'm afraid I grew quite severe here and suggested that, should negotiations ever lead to this point, the only place from which to shoot Artù was the floor.

Time passed, and his owner did not hear from the producer, and finally the film was made without Artù's artistic contribution. He, however, continued to sing. As the months went by and I heard the repertory of the human singers time after time, I realized that the two most often-sung songs that waft their way up and down the waters of the Grand Canal are those Neapolitan classics, "Torna a Sorrento" and "O sole mio." Was a Venetian dog meant to sing along to these? What, I wondered, was the music that was really meant to be sung from the gondola?

By the middle of the fifth year, the gondola was caulked, coated with countless layers of resin, painted, and judged to be watertight. All of the decorative parts were in place, the fórcola bought, and two metal ferri attached at front and back. It was time to launch the gondola. To do this, it was necessary to find enough strong men to take it from where it rested in the wooden cradle in the carpenter's workshop and carry it first to a truck. Thirty-two men answered the casting call, a panoply of muscles such as life seldom presents us. They lifted the gondola, all 350 kilos of it, and carried it slowly towards an eight-wheeled heavy transport truck. The driver lowered the winch and then lifted the boat into place on the cradle where it would rest until it reached its destination.

The trip took an hour. I followed behind in a friend's car and thus could see the heads of drivers and passengers whip around as the truck passed them. A gondola? On the autostrada?

In Tronchetto, the parking lot at the end of the bridge from the mainland, another winch cradled the gondola and lifted it from the truck, then lowered it gently into the water. As soon as they heard the story, the people in the growing crowd at the dock, lined up on the edge, waiting to see if it would sink or swim.

It swam, and the heroic builder finally climbed down into his boat, walked to the back, and took the oar that a friend handed down to him. In jeans and tennis shoes, without a straw hat, and with no Neapolitan singer at midship, he started to row away from the dock, heading towards the entrance to the Grand Canal.

Those of us who had come along with him to Venice to watch the launch started to cheer, and soon we were joined by the workers on the pier. Our shouts and whistles must have created a strong wind or current behind him, for very soon he disappeared into the darkness under the railway bridge. Then, a few long minutes later, he appeared again in the sunlight on the other side, turned in an arc to the right, and disappeared into the beginning of the Grand Canal. This time, it was the assembled dock workers and boatmen who started to cheer, and soon we were all standing there, pounding one another on the shoulder, cheering at the boat that was finally on its way towards home.


Taking a Closer Look

Despite some changes in its form, the gondola we see today, gliding effortlessly through the waters of Venice, is easily recognizable as the same boat that floats through the work of the great painters of Venice: Bellini, Canaletto, Carpaccio, Guardi. To walk through any museum where their paintings or drawings are on display is to identify, not only the gondola, but the familiar buildings and bridges of the city, just as faces identical to many of the subjects in those paintings can today appear behind the counter of a bar or across a Venetian dinner table. Part of the fascination of the city surely rests in the fact that the past is so ever-present genetically as well as linguistically and architecturally.

Though there is speculation, though no certainty, about the origins of this very strange boat, today it is seen as the quintessential Venetian. Its name has changed, though there is philological dispute about the nature of that change. Some insist that the original name came from Greek, "kóndy" (cup). Or perhaps the origin is the Latin "concula" (small shell) or "cymbula" (little boat). The first written evidence of the current name comes from a 1094 decree by Doge Vitale Falier, making mention of the "Gondulam".


Excerpted from "Gondola"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Diogenes Verlag AG Zurich.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Gondola as a Paradox,
I Think I Could Do This,
Taking a Closer Look,
The Master Builder,
Can a Boat Be a Fashion Statement?,
Musica Popolare,
The Ships from Hell,
Barcarole: Venetian - English,
Music Credits,
Il Pomo d'Oro: Cast,
Illustration Credits,
Al prato e al cale o ninfe (instrumental),
Con Checca, Betta e Catte,
Madam carissima,
Per mi aver,
Cara la mia Ninetta,
Domenico Gallo,
Sonata Trio No. 1 in G major,
Sonata Trio No. 1 in G major,
Sonata Trio No. 1 in G major,
Son stuffo morto,
Tanti dise,
Mai se patisce freddo,
La luna mi ghò suso,
Pietro Baldassare,
Sonata in F major,
Sonata in F major,
Sonata in F major,
Sonata in F major,
Sonata in F major,
Sonata in F major,
Confesso el vero,
Giuseppe Tartini,
Canzone veneziana,
Molti rogna,
Farev' la ritrosetta,
Giuseppe Antonio Brescianello,
Sonata Trio in C minor,
Sonata Trio in C minor,
Sonata Trio in C minor,
Sonata Trio in C minor,
La biondina in gondoletta,
Se imparar la vuol patrona,
Mi credeva d'esser sola,

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