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  • Writer's pictureRobin Yong

The Gondolier's Tale 船歌

Updated: Jan 14

"The gondolier is a picturesque rascal for all he wears no satin harness, no plumed bonnet, no silken tights. His attitude is stately; he is lithe and supple; all his movements are full of grace. When his long canoe, and his fine figure, towering from its high perch on the stern, are cut against the evening sky, they make a picture that is very novel and striking to a foreign eye." Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869...

What a perfect description of my friend Fillipo...

The gondola (English: /ˈɡɒndələ/, Italian: [ˈɡondola]; Venetian: góndoła[ˈɡoŋdoɰa]) is a traditional, flat-bottomed Venetian rowing boat, well suited to the conditions of the Venetian lagoon. It is typically propelled by a gondolier, who uses a rowing oar, which is not fastened to the hull, in a sculling manner and also acts as the rudder. The uniqueness of the gondola includes it being asymmetrical along the length making the single-oar propulsion more efficient.

Gondoliers are a Venetian icon of their own, and together with the Venetian Masks, they remind us of that magical and glamorous lifestyle. Existing in Venice since the 11th century, ( being first mentioned by name in 1094 ), there is however still a lot of mystery around the gondoliers’ world. It is a world where few locals, let alone foreigners, are a part of. It is estimated that there were eight to ten thousand gondolas during the 17th and 18th century, but there are only around four hundred in active service today, with virtually all of them used for hire by tourists. Those few that are in private ownership are either hired out to Venetians for weddings or used for racing.

The profession of gondolier is controlled by a guild, which issues a limited number of licenses (approximately 400), granted after periods of training (400 hours over six months) and apprenticeship, and a major comprehensive exam which tests knowledge of Venetian history and landmarks, foreign language skills, and practical skills in handling the gondola. Such skills are necessary in the tight spaces of Venetian canals. Gondoliers dress in a blue or red striped top, red neckerchief, wide-brimmed straw hat and dark pants. Most gondoliers descend from a family of gondoliers.

The traditional folk song sung by Venetian gondoliers is called a Barcarolle. In classical music, two of the most famous barcarolles are Jacques Offenbach's "Belle nuit, ô nuit d'amour", from his opera The Tales of Hoffmann; and Frédéric Chopin's Barcarolle in F-sharp major for solo piano.

I first got to know Fillipo 3 years ago, when my Masked costumer friend Eve Samaritano hired his gondola for a gentle cruise around town. My Masked costumer friends love these gondola rides - part and parcel of our "Great Pleasure Excursion"in Venice... they have spent the past few months painstakingly making their most ornate costumes and some souvenir photos on the gondola is a big must. Fillipo works at the 2 gondola stations near where I stay and someone told him I am a photographer teaching photography at the Venice Carnevale. So he decided to ask me for a photo when Eve and I boarded his gondola. My mission on that day was to get Eve her photos, so I told Fillipo to just start rowing because it is nearly sunset and I shoot only with natural lighting so timing is important, but I'll get him some shot or two when I get the opportunity. Half an hour later, the journey came to an end and Fillipo probably thought that's the end of it. He finished tying the gondola to the pier when I told him to come sit next to Eve. I said, Fillipo, "I know you have been waiting for the moment, and so have please, give Eve a kiss...". And of course that photo caused quite a stir when it was released on social media that very night.

During Carnevale this year, I did a few more random portraits for Fillipo. And like many of the younger gondoliers, they all have exotic tattoos on their bodies, with Fillipo's Lion of Venice being the most iconic.

A pity, because of the current pandemic, we may not have a Carnevale in 2021 and even if we have one, it will be too much trouble for me to fly to Venice with all the flight schedules, border closures and quarantine rules being so rampant. But I am sure once this has settled, we'd all be lining up to board Fillipo's gondola once again...Really missing Venice much...

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