“The Fayrest That Ever I Saw”

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“…Certaine little boates, which they call Gondolas the fayrest that ever I saw in any place,” wrote Thomas Coryat of his travels in Venice in 1611.

I’ve posted excerpts from Thomas Coryat’s diaries, his descriptions of Venetian gondoliers and canals. In this excerpt, he describes the gondola, which I’ll embellish with some pictures.

“For none of them are open above, but fairly covered, first with some fifteene or sixteene little round peeces of timber that reach from one end to the other, and make a pretty kinde of Arch or vault in the Gondola; then with faire blacke cloth which is turned up at both ends of the boate, to the end that if the passenger meaneth to be private, he may draw downe the same, and after row so secretly that no man can see him:…”

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In these details from Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at the Rialto Bridge (1494), you can see the wooden frame or felze that Coryat describes, as well as the covering, sometimes of rasse or rushes, and sometimes of cloth, usually linen. Though Carpaccio’s scene predates Coryat’s visit, these details didn’t change dramatically in the interim.

Here’s another detail, this one from a painting by Joseph Heinz, showing the felze in the same era as Coryat. The painting of Doge Federico Corner is at the Museo Correr.

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Gabriel Bella’s paintings, which you can see at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, fascinate me with their detailed images of Venetian life. In this depiction of the courtesans out on the canal to advertise their wares (a detail from it), we can see more gondolas from this era. Notice how flat the boats are; the asymmetrical design wasn’t developed until the late 1800s, so though Bella lived in the 1700s, the gondolas he painted here would be similar to what Coryat saw.

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“…In the inside the benches are finely covered with blacke leather, and the bottomes of many of them together with the sides under the benches are very neatly garnished with fine linnen cloth, the edge whereof is laced with bonelace : the ends are beautified with two pretty and ingenuous devices. For each end hath a crooked thing made in the forme of a Dolphins tayle, with the fins very artificially represented, and it seemeth to be Watermen tinned over.”

At first I thought Coryat was describing the boat hooks at the side of the gondola, often in the shape of a serpent or dolphin. But then I realized he’s referring to the ferro. Here’s a modern-day ferro, but you can see in the older paintings that they looked a bit different in Coryat’s day.

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Coryat next describes the gondoliers standing at either end of the gondola, in the days when having two gondoliers was the norm. That ended as families’ fortunes waned and households began employing one gondolier only, with the ferro to counterbalance his weight.

“The Water-men that row these never sit as ours do in London, but alwaies stand, and that at the farther end of the Gondola, sometimes one, but most commonly two ; and in my opinion they are altogether as swift as our rowers about London. Of these Gondolas they say there are ten thousand about the citie, whereof sixe thousand are private, serving for the Gentlemen and others, and foure thousand for mercenary men, which get their living by the trade of rowing.”

I’m grateful to Thomas Coryat for giving me this window into Venice’s past.

About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
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