“ You can only say you know how to
master a gondola when, while rowing,
you’re able to place a full glass of wine aboard
and not spill a drop.”
Quote from “Beneath the Lion’s Wings”
Matthew “Marcello” Haynes was born to be a gondolier. Although he is not Italian, he somehow was born with an Italian soul. He had never been to Venice. Never even seen a gondola until minutes before he started training to row one. Marcello Haynes is every bit a full-fledged gondolier.
The gondola is arguably the most recognizable boat in history. It has been around for nearly 1000 years. It was an ideal boat for Venetians fleeing invaders from the North whose boats could not navigate the marshy shallows of the Venetian lagoon. When the threat of invasion diminished, the gondola evolved into an ornately-decorated means of transportation used by the Venetian elite and common folk alike. Gondolas and their gondoliers have been immortalized in paintings by famous Venetian artists such as Bellini, Canaletto, Carpaccio and Guardi.
Today, they have become world-renowned as the most romantic way for tourists to savor the mysteries and enchantments of Venice. There is a magic about quietly gliding past the incredible buildings of Venice up and down narrow canals and the majestic Grand Canal. Adding to the incredible allure of the gondola is the mystique of the “gondolier”, the man who rows the gondola. Rowing a gondola is a skillful job and gondoliers need to be trained and qualified to perform the “Voga alla Veneta”, which is the Venetian style of rowing: standing up and facing forward, rowing off of the starboard side of the boat.
To become a licensed gondolier in Venice, one must train for approximately 400 hours. The 12-18-month course includes the art of rowing, languages, history, local geography and an understanding of the duties and tradition of the Venetian gondolier.
There are approximately 540 licensed gondoliers working in Venice. In the 16th century, there were 10,000. Once a trainee has been accepted by the guild into the apprentice program, the student rows the traghetti gondolas that carry passengers across the Grand Canal at five different stations.
Anyone can take a course, but to become a gondolier in Venice you generally have to be born into a family of gondoliers and be male. There are exceptions: Giorgia Boscolo, daughter of retired sixth-generation gondolier Dante Boscolo, is the first licensed female gondolier in Venice, obtaining her license in 2010. In Venice, a licensed gondoliere can earn $150,000 a year.
The route to becoming a gondolier was quite different for a young American named Matthew “Marcello” Haynes. Marcello was in college at Lehigh University studying history and biology and rowing on the crew team there. Searching for a summer job, he happened upon a lady running a temp agency who said she had been at a job fair in Providence, and there was a company looking for a person to row a gondola. She did not remember the particulars, so Marcello started searching. He had no luck until he called Providence City Hall, and spoke with Mayor Cianci’s office. Mayor Ciancia had been instrumental in bringing a Venetian gondola company to Providence. A mayor’s aide quickly provided Marcello with the contact number. Marcello called the number they gave him and was hired that day.
His new boss, Allen “Marco” Days, was Providence’s only active gondolier, but owned two authentic gondolas and had a business offering gondola rides along the Riverwalk in Providence, RI. One of the gondolas was built in Manchester, Massachusetts by a boat builder named Emerson following century-old plans obtained from the Venetian Naval History Museum in Venice. Marcello’s employer had another gondola that was built in Venice by an American boat builder, Thom Price.
Gondolas to this day are built in Venice. One of the most famous gondola boat yards is the Squero di San Travos, the oldest of the three remaining gondola boatyards in Venice. It dates back to the 15th Century and is still in operation building and repairing gondolas. The methods used are the same as those that have been used for more than 600 years. The law in Venice requires that all gondolas be painted black. The only time a gondola may be painted another color is when it used for a wedding or for racing.
Marcello’s gondolas, like all authentic gondolas, have distinctive prows. The prow is known as the ‘ferro’ (iron), but it can be made from brass, stainless steel, or aluminum. The ferro serves several purposes: It prevents the boat from damage if the gondola collides with other boats or bulwarks, and it once served as a counterweight for the gondolier. It also has ornamental value with the six prongs that may represent the six administrative districts in Venice. The “remo” or oar is again very special. The present-day remo is a very refined version of the old oars used on gondolas and other boats. Initially, it was heavier and made out of a single piece of wood, wide enough to contain the blade, the shape of which is taken from a template.
Most gondolas are distinctively decorated with wood carvings, upholstered chairs and two ornate brackets or Cavallis. The Cavalli are generally polished brass decorations in the shape of a seahorse with braided decorative chords attached. When gondolas were used mainly by the very wealthy and to hide the occupants from view, a felze made of cloth and wooden poles formed a cabin for the passengers.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the gondola is that it is not like other boats in that it is asymmetric. The gondola is built so the left side is slightly longer and more curved than the right. This asymmetry causes the gondola to resist turning to the left since the gondolier rows always on the right side bracing his oar against the forcola, a special kind or wooden oarlock.
It took about 20-25 hours of water time over a month of training for Marcello to learn the basics of the art of Voga alla Veneta gondola rowing. Then, he was off and rowing. From what started out as a summer job to make money for college became a passion and a love affair with the romance of the gondola. Marcello says that as a gondolier, Venice is “the harbor of my soul’s longing. It is like making a pilgrimage”. Marcello visits as often as he can, and his wife allows.
His wife Bryna is also a small business owner –a writer, editor, and writing coach. They have two daughters, Aine and Aelyn. Marcello is just about to celebrate his 40th birthday.
Marcello told me, “I have a French face, but I have an Italian heart.” I asked Marcello if he thought he might have been a gondolier in another life. Marcello said, “I could have been a gondolier in another life - my own philosophy on that is a little different from most, but I do believe that memories, however fragmented, could very well be passed from one person to another at time of death, so that people living currently can hold memories of having done something that they had never done in this life, or perhaps that is the reason why they end up doing things in this life.”
Each day in the season, wearing his authentic navy-and-white-striped shirt and a straw hat with royal blue ribbon, Marcello braces his remo against the forcola and is living a venerated Venetian tradition. Marcello is rowing a gondola as have Venetians for a thousand years.
Authentic forcolas are hand-carved of fruit or nut wood and custom-designed and carved by hand to fit the unique physical characteristics of the gondolier.
Marcello worked rowing Allen “Marco” and Cynthia Days' gondolas for eight seasons between 1999-2006. Then he bought the company and now operates four 36-foot gondolas. His company is La Gondola Providence, website www.gondolari.com. The phone number is 401-421-8877. Trips are available along the Providence and Woonasquatucket rivers along the Riverwalk. From early April through early November, Marcello and his fellow gondoliers can be found rowing their gondolas and occasionally singing, although not all gondoliers in Venice sing. Special arrangements can be made for weddings, tour groups, and special events. Marcello charges $89.00 for two passengers for about 40 minutes for the standard Sogni trip package. There are several different trips one can take, packages are described on the La Gondola website.
Marcello, the Yankee Gondolier, recently competed in the 2018 Gondola Nationals, which pit Gondoliers from all over the U.S. against each other in a sprint, distance, and slalom races. For details about the Gondola Nationals go to www.usgondolanationals.com.