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The Little Ships of the Water Streets

by James B. Marshall

If the jolly uncle of certain Venetian girls and boys comes home from China, and says, "Hurra, children! let's go take a ride, and have a good time," they don't imagine it will be in an open carriage behind swift-footed horses.


They would think of a beautiful little ship, about thirty feet long, four or five wide, and as light as cork, called a gondola, which means "little ship." It would be painted black, like every other gondola, and the prow would be ornamented with a high halberd-shaped steel piece, burnished to a dazzling glitter. This steel prow would act as a counter-balance to their rower, who would stand on the after-end, and row with his face in the direction they wished to be taken. The rowlock would be simply a notched stick, and he would row with one long oar, pushing swiftly along.

He would row so gracefully and easily that you might think you could quickly become a good gondolier if you tried. You would change your mind, however, after the laughable experience of rowing yourself overboard several times, and admit that rowing a gondola requires no small skill.

It was the people called the Veneti who, more than a thousand years ago, settled Venice, and invented these little ships. The fifteen thousand houses of Venice are built on a cluster of islands, over one hundred in number, and divided by nearly one hundred and fifty canals, or water streets. However, one may visit any part of the city without the aid of a gondola, as the islands are joined together by three hundred and seventy-eight bridges, and between the houses lead narrow crooked passages, many not wider than the width of one's outspread arms.

The canals are salt, and offer at high tide fine salt-water bathing. As most of the houses rise immediately from the water, it is not an uncommon sight, at certain hours, to see a gentleman or his children walk down his front-door steps arrayed for bathing, and take a "header" from the lower step. That sounds very funny, but to the Venetians such proceedings are quite a matter of course.

In the lagoon around the city are numerous exasperating sand islands, exposed to view at low tide. The amateur gondolier seeks this lagoon, to be safe from scoffers at his clumsy rowing, and often, right in the midst of his "getting the knack of it," the tide leaves him stuck fast on a sand island, to wait for its return.

Excepting the Grand Canal, the canals are narrow, and make innumerable sharp turns; so that it requires more skill to steer a gondola than it does to row, if such a thing is possible. The gondoliers display great skill in both rowing and steering, and they cut around corners and wind through openings seemingly impassable, always warning each other of their intentions by certain peculiar cries.

During Venice's prosperity, gondola regattas were held, and were events of great pomp and display. They took place on the Grand Canal, when the whole city gathered on its banks, or in many gondolas on its surface, and what with the music, the display of flags and banners, and the bright-colored clothing of the color-loving people, the spectacle certainly must have presented a scene of great brilliancy. The prizes were money and champion flags, and with the lowest was also given a live pig—a little pleasantry corresponding to the leather medal in American contests.

Once a year the Doge, or chief ruler of Venice, and his officers went in a vessel of royal magnificence, called the Bucintora, out upon the Adriatic Sea, followed by a grand procession of gondolas, and there he dropped overboard a gold ring, after certain impressive ceremonies, thus signifying Venice's espousal with the sea, and her dominion over it.

This Bucintora was a two-decked vessel propelled by one hundred and sixty of the strongest rowers of the Venetian fleet. Its sides were carved and gilded, some parts gold-plated, and the whole surmounted by a gold-embroidered crimson velvet canopy. The mast is still preserved in the arsenal at Venice, but the vessel was purposely destroyed to secure its gold ornaments.

It is only in the severest winters—of rare occurrence—that gondolas can not be used; but then the young Venetians may perform the—to them—wonderful feat of walking on the water, and tell of it years after. Some two hundred years ago the ice lasted the unheard-of time of eighteen days, and such an impression did the event make upon the Venetians that the year in which it happened is known to the present day as the anno del ghiaccio—"year of the ice."