photos by Greg Mohr
The highest part of a Venice-built gondola is usually the tail. There are exceptions, but most involve hull damage or extremely heavy gondoliers. Ask any gondolier who operates in a tide-influenced waterway, and they’ll tell you that just because the front end fits under a bridge, it doesn’t mean that the tail will too. I’ve come upon situations many times in Newport where I had to get as much of my weight out on the tail of the gondola as possible. Luckily, I’ve been eating a lot more than I should lately, so I have a little extra weight to throw around (if any of you need help in gaining some extra weight for this maneuver, I’ll be happy to offer my coaching services). There have been a few times when I actually had to lie on my back and push vertically against the underside of a bridge to make sure the tail of the gondola didn’t get damaged. Oh, the things we do in an effort to get our couples under a bridge to kiss. I could not possibly write about dealing with low bridges without giving a nod to gondolier Robert Dula, who rowed his gondola in City Park in New Orleans, prior to Hurricane Katrina.
Robert exhibited a level of dedication seldom seen in the gondola world: he removed sections of the bow and stern in order to fit under the many bridges in City Park, and he had to lay down, or crouch while passing under each bridge. Bravo Roberto!
Now let’s talk about vocabulary for a moment. If you’re already a gondola expert, please forgive the following educational material.
Most folks know the terms “bow” and “stern”; the bow is the front and the stern is the back. I like to say to my passengers that “you bow to someone if they approach you from in front but you’re stern with them if the sneak up behind you”. Another word for the bow of a boat is the “prow”, the Italian equivalent is “prua” and the Venetian dialect version is “prova”. The big ornate metal blade that adorns the prow is the “ferro” (“fero” according to many Venetians), the piece is usually made of aluminum, with some of the more high-line ones made of stainless steel.
There is another piece of metal, way up at the other end of the boat. It is also referred to as a “ferro”, but usually with the addition of “da poppa” so everyone knows that it’s at the “poppa” end of the gondola. If you’re following along and not too bored by my writing thus far, you’ve probably guessed that the “poppa” is at the back end or “stern” of the gondola. The “poppa” is the raised platform that the gondolier stands on while rowing; I find it easy to remember because it comes from the same root as “poop deck”. Now I ask you, what guy can say “poop deck” without at least smiling or cracking up? My kids love it. The “poop deck” is that area at the back of the classic pirate ship where the captain steers using that huge, knobby steering wheel. For me, images of a parrot and a peg-leg always seem to follow.
One last piece of vocabulary: “lama”. In some cases, the “ferro da poppa” is referred to as a “lama” or “lama di poppa”– you can see such a reference in a number of Gilberto Penzo’s drawings. “Lama” translates to “blade” so it is the “stern blade”. In an effort to keep things simple, I often tend more towards the word “lama” rather than “ferro da poppa”.
As far as I know, there is no correlation between this part of the gondola and either a long-necked furry animal from South America, or an important Buddhist from Tibet. So, getting down to the main focus of this post, when I was in Venice in 2005, I saw a very unique piece of “lama” hardware. I would guess that some of the bridges are a bit on the low side, or perhaps some gondola owners have had issues with the lower parts of the arches under some Venetian bridges. Whatever the reason, a new collapsible lama has been invented.
To the untrained eye, the tail-end of the gondola looks like all the others in and around Bacino Orseolo. That’s right folks, we’re back in the Bacino - the “Gondola Garage” as some call it. For those of us who spend a ridiculous amount of time and attention on crescent-shaped boats, the hardware is different and most of us would notice it, but mostly our eye would be drawn to the extra buckle hardware on the side.
What they’ve done is quite elegant in its simplicity; they’ve added a hinge to the back-strap portion of the “lama”, cut the wood of the tail to allow an easy swing-away movement, effectively shortening the height of the tail by 6 to 8 inches. The final touch involves the aforementioned buckle, which holds the whole shootin’ match in-place. I have yet to learn whether it’s a “breakaway” piece or if it can only swing down after someone has released the buckle.
I saw a couple other gondolas with the same “aftermarket modification” and was most impressed by how clean the cut was as it severed the brass or stainless steel rub-rail trim. With the exception of the buckle and hinge, many of them were quite well disguised.