Disgruntled gondoliers make waves on the canals of Venice

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The gondoliers of Venice are on the warpath. After a near disaster last Tuesday, when a 15-month-old baby was narrowly saved from drowning after a vaporetto, one of Venice's public water buses, rammed into a gondola, the men in striped shirts have had enough.

The gondoliers of Venice are on the warpath. After a near disaster last Tuesday, when a 15-month-old baby was narrowly saved from drowning after a vaporetto, one of Venice's public water buses, rammed into a gondola, the men in striped shirts have had enough.

The accident happened on the Grand Canal when an entire family of Dutch tourists, two children and their parents, was flung into the canal by the impact of the collision. The baby had already sunk beneath thesurface, but a gondolier who jumped in to rescue them felt something rubbing against his calf, as he explained later. That something was the baby boy, and once hauled from the water he was taken to a hospital in Padua, where he is recuperating.

It is not the first time that the delicate, hand-powered gondolas have come out on the losing side of encounters with the motor-powered vessels that now dominate Venice's waterways. In 14 serious incidents in the past 12 years seven people have died. And now the gondoliers have decided to stand up and be counted.

Next Sunday is the city's Regata Storica, one of Venice's biggest traditional festivals, when historic craft process down the Grand Canal and the gondoliers compete in races. But this year they will be displaying their anger as well as their prowess - though exactly how has yet to be made public. "We won't block the festival," said Roberto Luppi, president of the Bancali, the gondoliers' union, "but we will make ourselves heard."

The struggle of the gondoliers has been going on for 20 years. They have been the city's symbol for centuries, and their finely balanced, lacquered black craft, 36ft long, constructed of eight different types of wood including oak, lime and cherry, and nine inches shorter on the starboard side than the port, remain Venice's most visible link with its glorious past.

But the city they epitomise needs them less and less. In the 16th century, there were 10,000 gondolas in Venice; today there are 405. The number has been steady for a decade, and although a trip on a gondola costs as much as a good meal out for two, there is no shortage of passengers.

But their share of Venice's water-borne trade has never been lower. Of 2,000 journeys made by craft of every type in Venice per day, gondolas account for 6 per cent. Competing with them are 150 vaporetti, 288 fast motor taxis (dozens of which are unlicensed) and unnumbered large tourist launches, as well as delivery boats, speedboats for hire and police and ambulance vessels.

All of them can go anywhere on the canal system that they fancy, and while there are strict speed limits, police have given up attempting to clamp down on speeders, according to a report in La Repubblica. Traffic on the canals, it is said, has increased by 30 per cent in the past two years. "Today," writes Roberto Bianchin, "the city is on the point of collapse, the waterways have become an inferno, clogged and dangerous."

Comments