It has suffered much abuse in comic opera, novels and romances. That is no reason why it should not be better known. We will give a detailed description of it. The gondola is a natural production of Venice, an animated being with a special and local life, a kind of fish that can exist only in the water of a canal. The lagoon and the gondola are inseparable, and one is the complement of the other. Without the gondola, Venice would be impossible. The city is a madrepore, the mollusc of which is the gondola. It alone can wind in and out among the inextricable network and capillary system of the aquatic streets.
The narrow and long gondola, raised at both ends, and drawing little water, has the form of a skate. Its prow is armed with a flat and polished piece of iron which vaguely recalls the curved neck of a swan, or rather the neck of a violin with its pegs. Six teeth, the interstices of which are sometimes filled with pierced work, contribute to this resemblance. This piece of iron serves for decoration, for defense and for counterpoise, the craft being more heavily weighted behind. On the bulwark of the gondola, close to the prow and the stern, are fixed two pieces of wood, curved like ox-horns, in which the gondolier rests his oar while he stands on a little platform with his heel wedged in a little socket. The whole visible gondola is coated with tar, or painted black. A more or less rich carpet covers the bottom. In the centre, the cabin is placed, the felce, which is easily removed if we want to substitute an awning, a modern degeneracy at which every good Venetian groans. The felce is entirely made of black cloth and furnished with two soft cushions covered with morocco of the same hue, back to back; moreover, there are two bracket seats at the sides so that it will accommodate four. On each lateral face two windows are pierced. These are usually left open, but may be closed in three ways: first, by a bevelled square of Venetian glass, or a frame with flowers cut in the crystal; secondly, by a Venetian slat blind, so as to see without being seen ; and thirdly, by a cloth shade, over which, for the sake of more mystery, one can lower the outside covering of the felce. These different systems of blind slide in a transverse groove. The door, by which we enter backwards, since it would be difficult to turn around in this narrow space, has simply a window and a panel. The wooden portion is carved with more or less elegance according to the wealth of the owner, or the taste of the gondolier. On the left doorcase shines a copper shield surmounted by a crown. Here one has one’s arms or monogram engraved. Above it a little frame with a glass contains the image for which the host or the gondolier cherishes a special devotion: the Holy Virgin, St. Mark, St. Theodore, or St. George.
It is on that side also that the lantern is fixed, a custom that is somewhat falling into disuse, for many gondolas are navigated without having this star on their brow. Because of the coat-of-arms, the saint and the lantern, the left is the place of honour; it is there that women, and aged or important persons sit. At the back, a movable panel enables one to speak to the gondolier posted on the stern, the only one who really manages the boat, his paddle being an oar and a rudder at the same time. Two cords of silk with two handles help you to rise when you want to go out, for the seats are very low. The cloth of the felce is embellished on the outside by tufts of silk similar to those of priests’ hoods, and when we want to shut ourselves up completely, it falls over the back of the cabin like too long a pall over a coffin. To conclude the description, let us say that on the inside of the bulwarks a sort of arabesque in white is traced upon the black ground of the wood. All this has not a great air of gaiety; and yet, if we may believe Lord Byron’s Beppo, as amusing scenes take place in these black gondolas as in funeral coaches. Madame Malibran, who did not like to go into these little catafalques, unsuccessfully tried to get their hue altered. This tint, which strikes us as lugubrious, does not seem so to the Venetians, who are accustomed to black by the sumptuary edicts of the ancient republic, and among whom the water hearses, mutes and shrouds are red.