A Title in Question

The gondoliera in Venice

“First Female Gondolier in Venice”

Who holds that title? Why is this question important (or not?) What does it signify? Why are we asking?

The question became pertinent again this summer when RadioLab aired its story “The Gondolier” about Alex Hai, the first woman to hold the title. Here’s the link:

The Gondolier podcast

I don’t want to ruin their storytelling by giving away the arc of it, which is handled masterfully. However, many of you already know a lot about Venice and know about female gondoliers there, specifically Alex Hai and Giorgia Boscola. These women broke the 900 year long tradition of this male-only profession. Spoiler alert: Alex Hai, the first woman to be granted this title, is transgender, has had sex confirmation surgery, and now identifies as a man. The podcast tells this story but doesn’t address the next installment: What about Giorgia Boscola, who was also later hailed as the first female gondolier?

Though Alex first worked as a substitute at the San Moise traghetto and was accepted as one of the crew there, he also faced much prejudice across the city for being a non-Venetian and for being an un-feminine woman. Alex attempted the gondolier license but did not pass the three-part test–which may have been due to prejudice and unfair obstacles put in his way. He never did become fully licensed according to traditional Venetian guidelines, though he certainly rows a gondola and works for a private hotel now. (This summer I spotted him rowing by in his distinctive uniform styled after Venetian Count Girolamo Marcello’s gondoliers; he’s pictured at the top of this post and below in photos from his website.)

Alex Hai’s website

In contrast, Giorgia Boscola earned the traditional gondolier license in 2010. Probably because she’s a native Venetian whose male relatives had been gondoliers before her, she didn’t face the same level of prejudice or obstruction that Alex did. She works out of the San Tomá traghetto station. For some background on Giorgia Boscola, here is a Daily Mail article, followed by a couple photos of her:

Daily Mail: Giorgia Boscola

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Photo of Alex Hai from his current website

I met Alex in 1997 when I got to know about 40 gondoliers during my process of writing Free Gondola Ride, an informal look at gondoliers’ lives and the stereotypes that surround them. At the time, Alex was working at the San Moise traghetto as a substitute and helper and identifying among the gondoliers as a woman. Here’s an excerpt from my book, in the chapter “Invitations and Scoldings,” when I met gondoliers named Andrea and Mimo, who are mentioned in this excerpt. Some of the comments I report here are quite disturbing, indicative of more common attitudes in the 1990s; I know that some of these people have definitely changed their viewpoints (and some of the players I have lost touch with). I hope you’ll read through to the end of this excerpt to see how the conversations and understandings developed.

From Free Gondola Ride:

… Andrea took this question fully in stride. “Yes. I come from a long line of gondoliers. My father was a gondolier and my grandfather, and my grand-grandfather,” he said, holding his hand ever higher in the air to imitate each generation. As we talked, I glanced furtively at the gondolier sitting just to my right—a woman. She wore the standard black slacks and white boatman’s shirt, and her sandy brown hair was cut short over her ears. Lino had pointed her out to me earlier when we were floating down the Grand Canal, saying that she had more male hormones than female. (I met this kind of prejudice against her nearly every time I mentioned her name to other gondoliers.) She was still just a substitute and traghetto worker, not a full-fledged gondolier. I was keenly interested to find out more about her, especially since Stefano had told me that there were no female gondoliers.

The woman gondolier looked over at us at this point. “What are you writing?” she asked me in laconic but perfect English. I explained my project briefly, pointing out that no one had written a book about the gondoliers before. I added (smugly, I must admit) that I had typed up about a hundred pages in my six weeks in Venice. “That is not so much,” she said. I wondered how many books she had written. “And what have you found?” she asked next.

I summarized by saying, “I have written some history of the gondoliers and the gondola, and I have talked to many gondoliers about their lives.” But she impatiently cut me off.

“No, what is your point?” she pressed me. “What is your theme?”

I was a bit taken aback by her forwardness. So far, everyone had simply been encouraging and willing to talk openly about his life. No one had questioned me so pointedly about my project. Wasn’t it enough to interview these guys and write a book that no one had written yet? I stammered, “I want to show that gondoliers are more than just a stereotype, that they are human, too, and come in many types, just like all people, even though people have this idea of them as casanovas.” I trailed off as I noticed a smirk on her face. I decided to try a different tack, thinking that if I could get her to talk about herself, she might feel that she could set me on the right path. “I think you are the first woman gondolier, right?” I asked.

She glanced at me sidelong with disdain. “It is too soon to talk about that,” she nearly spat out, and swung herself out of her chair and over to the traghetto to help ferry customers. For the first time in my many encounters with gondoliers, I had somehow offended one.

After checking with my usual informants, I later learned more about this interesting pioneer. Her name was Alexandra (“If she is a woman,” said Stefano). She was still only an apprentice because she hadn’t passed the rowing tests. Rico told me that she was not very good at rowing, but I suspected sexism as the real culprit. These men didn’t want to allow a woman into their hallowed ranks. In fact, she later brought a legal suit against the fraglia, which dragged out inconclusively in court for a few years.

However, my conversations were all doomed to be cut short: Mimo had spotted me. He bee-lined for me, took my arm in his big, rough hand, and led me away for a drink at the corner bar. Chicco trotted along with us. I still felt a bit disconcerted about my conversation with Alexandra, but with Mimo before me, I had another issue to resolve.

Customers arrived and our conversation ended. Andrea called over his shoulder that he could take me dancing if I wanted, but I declined. Venice’s discos are pathetic, and though I didn’t know his intentions, I also didn’t like the possibility of fending off more advances. I went on my way, not thinking of my conversation with the men, but instead troubled by Alexandra’s disdain and her questions.

A realization was settling over me like a blanket. See, the truth was, she had found me out. What was my point? Why was I here? My initial plan—to interview gondoliers in a journalistic style—had obviously degenerated into a farce. My encounters with them were too often about being hit on. I had given Alexandra an answer, but did I really believe in it any more? Or had the romance of gondoliers, of Venice—romance I sorely needed and missed in my life, I was now admitting to myself—superseded all else? I had surrendered to the gondoliers’ interview terms; what else was I surrendering?

Or maybe, I mused, a book had never been written about the gondoliers because it was impossible to fully divorce their story from the narrator’s. The more time I spent with them, the more I was drawn into their life, into Venice. I had succumbed to this romance. It had changed my story entirely.

***

So back to the question of who is the first female gondolier. The Guardian recently posted this story, which sums up the story trajectory and the title issue and points out that there is also a female sandolo rower. Of the many articles I perused as I crafted this post, this one seemed to be the most informed and unbiased.

The Guardian: “Patriarchy on the Canal”

We can also look at Wikipedia’s description: “Alex Hai (born 1967 in Hamburg)[1] is a transgender man of German and Algerian descent who is regarded as the first assigned-female-at-birth and first openly transgender person to be a gondolier in Venice.” So this grants a new title to Alex. I found it interesting that the RadioLab piece never mentions Giorgia Boscola and only identifies Alex Hai as the first female gondolier.

The idea of identifying the first female gondolier buys into the gender binary way of looking at the issue. As our understanding of gender and sexuality develops and deepens, perhaps it is becoming less important to make the distinction about the first female anything. And yet in A Beautiful Woman in Venice I wrote about the first woman in the world to earn a university degree: Elena Cornaro Piscopia, who was Venetian. Or the first Italian woman to write a novel–Giustiniana Wynne. It’s important to recognize women who break down barriers and who pave the way for equity and inclusion.

What do you all think? I’ll go back to my original questions: Who holds that title? Why is this question important (or not?) What does it signify? Why are we asking?

I’m open to learning new perspectives. 🙂

A Glamour article I kept from years ago, when Alex was hailed as the first female gondolier.

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About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
This entry was posted in A Beautiful Woman in Venice, Casanova, Gondolas, Venice, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Title in Question

  1. Very interesting article! Very interesting questions. On the one hand I guess it doesn’t matter but on the other – the people who break down barriers and do the thing society doesn’t expect of them are always interesting people – regardless of gender. And historically it’s good to keep track of the shifting sands of what is / is not acceptable. Maybe in a hundred years or so people will look at articles like this and ask: So what? But isn’t that the point? To record that when you wrote it, it was an issue that was far from clear cut?
    Hopefully, as you say, these attitudes are changing and what matters are individuals not genders. (Not surprisingly the Daily Mail article – right wing, offensive and generally sexist rag – can’t bring itself to touch on anything as controversial as transgender stuff. The Guardian though does a thorough job.)
    On a (only ever so slightly) less intelligent point of view: I couldn’t help but think that the idea of there suddenly being female gondoliers would have excited Casanova immensely. Perhaps the only thing that would have excited him more would be the whole idea of genders being much more than just binary. And that they could shift: that would have, seriously, floated his boat …..

  2. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I like the idea that this post could be a snapshot of attitudes as they are changing. And thanks for sharing the insights into the British newspapers–I picked one because I wanted something short that focused on quick facts, easy for a busy reader, and the other because it was nuanced and open-minded. I didn’t know their politics.
    And I love your commentary on Casanova. I agree with you–he probably would have loved the gender-bending stuff, and we know he liked women dressing as men. It’s fun to think of him weighing in on female gondoliers…

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