The Traghetti – Venice

Venice has many  ferries that cross the Grand Canal, or ply from point to point on the Giudecca, are a feature no less peculiar to the city than are the gondolas themselves, and they are quite as ancient. There are as many as sixteen of the ferries across the Grand Canal and the Giudecca: and each of them has its own history, its own archives and documents. For from its foundation each traghetto was a guild, a close corporation with a limited number of members, with its own particular rules, or mariegole, inscribed on parchment, in Gothic characters, ” lettere di forma,” as the gondoliers called them, and adorned with capitals painted in vermilion, and here and there an illuminated page showing the patron saint of the traghetto, or the Assumption of Madonna into heaven. The mariegole of the various traghetti, in their old Venetian bindings of morocco and gold, may still be seen in the archives of the Frari: and a singular fascination attaches to the ancient, time stained parchment which contains the history of that system of self government which was developed by the gondoliers during five centuries of Venetian story, and whose rules are expresssed in rich and vigorous dialect. The earliest of these mariegole belongs to the traghetto of Santa Sofia, near the Rialto, and dates from the year 1344: the traghetto itself, however, was probably much older. Yet the same regulations and customs which governed the gondoliers in the Fourteenth Century, hold good in the Nineteenth. A traghetto of today closely resembles a traghetto of 1300, though the years have overlaid its lines with dust : it is still a corporation, with property and endowments of its own : the same officers, under the same titles, still keep order among the brothers: only the whole institution has a somewhat ancient air, is marred by symptoms of decay, and we fear that it may not last much longer. Indeed, the history and internal arrangement of the traghetti offer the best example of that which makes the subject of gondolier life interesting to the student of antiquity: for the traghetti are, in fact, a genuine part of the Venetian Republic imbedded in United Italy; a fossil survival unique in the history of the country, and perhaps in that of the world.

The date at which the first traghetto was established, that is when the gondoliers plying for hire first formed them-selves into a guild at their ferry, is not known : but such a guild was certainly in existence before the middle of the Fourteenth Century. A corporation of this nature was called a scuola at Venice: and from the very first these schools of the gondoliers were of a religious character, dedicated to a patron saint, and in close connection with the church of the parish where the ferry was situated. This is the way in which the scuola of Santa Maria Zobenigo opens its book of rules:

” In the name of God, the Eternal Father, and of His Son Misser Jesu Cristo, and of His glorious mother, the Virgin Mary, and of the thrice blessed patron Misser San Marco, and of Misser San Gregorio, who are the guardians of us the boatmen at the traghetto of San Gregorio and Santa Maria Zobenigo: may they help each and all of us brothers to live in fear of the Lord God and with peace and brotherly love between us, first in health and prosperity and then to salvation of our souls and the remission of our sins.” And in their parish church the brothers of each scuola had a special place appointed for them, usually under the organ, where they sat in a body on Sundays, their officers at the head of each bench. The first section of the rules which governed the schools invariably applies to Church observance : ” The school pledges itself to keep a lamp burning day and night before the altar. . . Every second Sunday in the month they shall cause a solemn mass to be sung. . . Every Monday an ordinary mass. . . Every brother shall be obliged to confess twice a year, or at least once, and if, after a warning, he remain impenitent he shall be expelled. A brother who made the pilgrimage to Loretto, for the good of his soul, or of his body, was entitled to one centesimo a day while his journey lasted.” Those brothers who ” continue to live publicly in any deadly sin, shall be admonished, and expelled unless they amend.” The fines for disobedience and quarrelsomeness were ” applicate alla Madonna,” that is, they formed a fund for keeping an oil lamp burning at the shrine of the Madonna, ” per luminar la Madonna.” And the first fare taken at the traghetto each morning was dedicated to the same purpose and was called the ” parada della Madonna.”

The advantages conferred by these schools were so considerable and so obvious that, not only did every traghetto established one, but other classes of boatmen—the burchieri, or bargees, for example applied for leave to found a school. The petition of the burchieri is a curious document. It is addressed to the Council of Ten, and sets forth that ” this glorious lagoon is constantly in need of dredging, and should Your Excellencies grant out prayer, you will always have barges at your disposal for this purpose. Moreover, if we be allowed to found a school, we shall put an end to the dirt and noise on the Grand Canal under your windows. And we promise to pay eighty ducats yearly to the Water Commissioners. And, on the festival of the Ascension, we will make a triumph with our barges, to accompany the Doge when he goes to wed the sea.”

There is a fact about the nationality of the gondoliers in the Fifteenth Century which is worth noticing in passing. From the lists of the members of each traghetto, it appears that less than half were natives of Venice. Some hail from Treviso, from Ravenna, Padua, Bergamo, Brescia, or Vicenza; very many from Salo, on the lake of Garda; but by far the largest number come from the Dalmatian coast, from Sobenico, Zara, Segna, Traii, Spalato. A century later, these foreign names had disappeared. The gondoliers had either become, for the most part, Venetians proper, or, more probably, the foreign names had been dropped, as the families took root in their new home. However that may be, the men who first established these schools with their admirable system of government, were chiefly foreigners and not Venetians.

Every gondolier who worked at a traghetto belonged, ipso facto, to the scuola of that traghetto; and his title was barcariol del traghetto, to distinguish him from his natural enemy, the barcariol toso, or loose gondolier, who went about poaching on the confines of the various ferries, and stealing a fare whenever he could.

The scuole, it is true, exist no longer in all their clearly defined constitution; the passage of time has broken down this structure of the early gondoliers. But the traghetti still survive and each is governed by its ancient officials, its gastaldo and bancali. The latter are still responsible for the good order of the men; they arrange the rotations of service; they see to the cleanness and safety of the landing places; they retain their powers of trying, fining, or suspending a refractory brother; if the city authorities have any orders to issue, they communicate with the gastaldo and bancali; these officers are a true survival of the Fourteenth Century, with their duties, character and powers undiminished by the lapse of years. And the arrangements which these officers made of old for the good government of their traghetti retain their force in the Venice of today. In no profession are antique words more frequently to be found than in that of gondolier; the customs and phrases of their trade seem to have become hereditary in the blood of the gondoliers, though it is only when modern regulations are imposed upon them that the men discover how deeply seated is their attachment to their ancient art.

The arrangements of the traghetti are simple and efficient to maintain order; for though the noise is often great and a stranger might well believe that the men spent the larger part of their time in quarrelling, yet, as a matter of fact, a serious quarrel between two brothers, while on duty rarely occurs. The internal arrangement of a traghetto will be most easily understood by taking a typical instance, the traghetto of Santa Maria Zobenigo. This has one other traghetto, that of San Maurizio, and one station, that of the Ponte delle Ostreghi, attached to it, and worked by the men of Santa Maria. Besides serving these three posts, the gondoliers have duty at the neighbouring hotel, and lastly there is the patula, or night service. All the members of the traghetto, forty-two in all, are divided into six companies, each of which works in rotation as follows: One day at San Maurizio, one day at Santa Maria Zobenigo, one day at the Ponte delle Ostreghi; then come the two most important and profitable days for work, at the hotel Alla Locanda, and the patula. One of the companies is on duty at the hotel each day, and the men answer in turn to the hotel porter’s summons of poppe a uno, or a due, as one or two rowers are required. It is well to remember that should one wish to secure a particular gondolier, he must be called by his number; the rules of the traghetto forbid him to answer to his name. After the service at the hotel comes the patula, or service of twenty-four hours at the principal ferry. The fares for the parada, or passage, from one side to the other, is five centesimi during the day, and ten after the great bell of St. Mark’s has sounded at evening. The reason why this service of the patula is so profitable is the following: the service lasts from 9 A. M. till the following 9 A. M.; at 4 P. M. all the men except those belonging to the company on duty, leave the traghetto, thus reducing the numbers to a sixth, and increasing the gains. From 4 P. M. till 9 A. M. the men on the patula have the ferry all to themselves, and take all the hire that comes, both for services of an hour or more, as well as the fares for the parada, the only restriction being that the ferry must never be left with less than two men to attend to it. Their dinner is brought down to the ferry by the gondoliers’ wives or children, and, in the summer, one may often see a whole family party supping together in the bows of a gondola. In the hot weather, the men sleep in their gondolas, and in winter, as many of them as can find room crowd into the little wooden hut which stands at the traghetto the only remnant now of their chapter housewhere the bancali meet to settle the affairs of the fraternity. Sometimes the men on the patula club together, and divide the whole gains for the night in equal portions; sometimes each works on his own account.

The ordinary profits of the traghetto used formerly to be so great that the gondoliers neglected the service of the patula, preferring to spend their nights at home, or in the wine shops. But now a gondolier will tell you that his largest permanent gains each week come from the patula; and, at a good traghetto, he may count upon making four lire one night in every six, and frequently makes much more. At 9 A. M. those who have been on the patula the previous night, leave the traghetto for the whole of that day. The rotation of six days, three at the three posts, one at the hotel, one on the patula, and one off day, makes up the diurnal life of the gondolier, unless he should be fortunate enough to have found a padrone, in which case he is free from all the rules and service of the traghetto. While on duty at the ferry, a few excellent rules suffice to keep order among the men. Those on duty are arranged numerically; and, when a passenger comes to the ferry, no one may call to him but the gondolier whose turn it is; the only exception to this rule being that if a friar wishes to cross the ferry, the boat last in the order is bound to serve him, and for nothing. This custom is, however, falling into disuse. No gondolier on duty may tie his boat to the pali, or posts, of the traghetto, nor may he wash his boat in cavana, the spaces between the posts where the gondola’s bows run in. While on service, he is forbidden to go to the wine shops; if he does, he loses his turn, and when he comes back he takes his place last on the list.

At the opening of the Seventeenth Century, the government was obliged to revolutionise the whole character of the traghetti by taking away their property in the liberties. Hitherto there had been five modes by which a man might become a member of a traghetto either by election in chapter school; or by the renunciation of a brother in his favour; or by exchange between two members of different ferries; or by the order of the Proveditori as filling a vacancy unfilled by the school ; or by order of the Proveditori as a reward for good naval service. Now, all the liberties, as soon as they fell vacant, were put up to auction in the office of the Milizia da Mar, and knocked down to the highest bidder. From this time forward, till the close of the Republic, purchase at auction from the government became the only way in which a man could obtain a license as gondolier. The government undertook the supervision of the registers, and any liberty that remained unoccupied through neglect, ill health, or death, was sold immediately.

Thus the traghetti lost the control over their liberties; and with that control disappeared the most important part of their functions and powers as a corporation. From that date to this, the government of the day has been the virtual owner of the liberties, and the final resort in all questions affecting their management. Until quite recently, a young gondolier might buy an old one out of his place at a good traghetto, for about three hundred lire; and the municipality readily sanctioned such exchanges. But the present town-council desire to put an end to this remnant of ancient privilege, and insist that they alone shall appoint and transfer, and that the gondoliers have no claim to initiative in the matter.

The regulations of the government on the subject of liberties restored comparative order to the traghetti, though they could not alter human nature, and we come across occasional outbursts of the riotous spirit among the young gondoliers, who still bullied their passengers, and exacted more than their due centesimo for the fare across the ferry. In the year 1702, the censors threaten the whip, and other tortures, for those who carry pistols or knives in their boats; and, as late as 1800, one Francesco Pelizzari ; distinguished himself by crowding twenty-nine unfortunate people into his gondola, and refusing to land them till they had paid a modo suo. For this exploit, however, he was banished from Venice.

The corporate life of the traghetti was closed by the action of the government in the Sixteenth Century. The schools survived, though with diminished vitality, until the extinction of the Republic; and even now certain of their functions are still performed by the modern traghetti. The traghetti are still friendly societies. A brother who falls ill receives a certain sum daily from the fraternity as long as his illness lasts; and the gastaldo and four brothers attend his funeral with torches, and accompany him to his last home at San Michele when he dies. The bancali are still the recognised heads of the traghetti, and hold their sittings in the wooden shelter huts at each ferry’s end. But this is all that remains of an institution which was once among the most remarkable and complete of those that flourished under the Venetian Republic.