The Little Ships
of the Water
by James B.
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
A GONDOLA ON THE GRAND CANAL.
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
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
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."