All you need to know about First Officially Recognized Female Gondolier of Venice

Giorgia Boscolo remains the only woman permitted to officially operate a gondola to this day

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Giorgia Boscolo
Giorgia Boscolo, Venice's first Gondoliera, rowing the Traghetto San Samuele. wikimedia
  • 24-year-old Giorgia Boscolo  successfully managed to turn the tide in a profession that has been a pillar of the historic city since 1094
  • The issue of gender in Venice’s centuries-old gondolier community made headlines again with a canal rower who came out as transgender
  • Chiara Curto turned her passion for rowing into a profession when she successfully passed exams last year to row a flat-bottomed boat known as a sandolo

Venice, July 3, 2017: What do you see when someone mentions Venice, the beautiful Italian city? Most of us will say we see ourselves sitting in a gondola listening to a melodious tune the gondolier hums. Needless to say, the gondolier is male of course.

Venice’s gondoliers were exclusively male for nearly a millennium. Handing down the prestigious role of a gondolier from father to son has been a tradition for a very long period. It wasn’t until 2010 that 24-year-old Giorgia Boscolo  successfully managed to turn the tide in a profession that has been a pillar of the historic city since 1094.

Boscolo did not shy away from following in the footsteps of her father, Dante, who had been working as a gondolier for 40 years. It was not easy for her though, she was granted the licence to guide tourists through the city’s majestic canals after passing a demanding course of six months. After that, Boscolo became the first officially recognised female gondolier. Finally the mould in a guild that had a long history of resistance directed at women was broken.

In no time, the groundbreaking news of her job spread across Italy. It would be natural to expect a plethora of applications from other women to follow. But that did not happen. Aldo Reato, the president of Venice’s gondoliers’ association, explained “We don’t get women enrolling, you’d have to ask them why. There have been some others who have tried, but failed the exam. Plenty of women do take part in regattas, but for many it’s not so easy to train to become a gondoliera, especially if they have small children to look after.”

Last week, The issue of gender in Venice’s centuries-old gondolier community made headlines again with a canal rower who came out as transgender. Once again the unique transport history of the city was brought into the spotlight.

Alex Hai opted for Facebook to make the announcement and also appeared in an interview on the American radio show and podcast Radiolab. Hai, who had taken the gondoliers’ test four times as a woman but failed each time, said that the examiners were “overly strict” and accused the 425-strong association of deliberately keeping him out at that time because of his sex. The claim has been strongly refuted by the association. In 2015, Hai won a court battle to operate as a gondolier privately for a hotel chain owned by a local aristocrat.

Reato believes it is certainly not easy for anyone to pass the gondolier exam, regardless of their gender. He says, “It’s a very technical job and involves lots of different skills, like watching for weather patterns.” The key is definitely navigation skills, but a basic knowledge of English and a good understanding of the city’s landmarks is important as well. There are just 40 places on the gondolier course each year and the preparation procedure includes 400 hours of instruction in the use of the single oar used to propel the gondola through the canals.

According to The Gurdian, Boscolo remains the only woman permitted to officially operate a gondola to this day. In Venice, The main form of transport for more than a century has been the ancient 35ft, 6in vessel.  Before being welcomed by aristocrats when their preferred mode of transport, horses, were banned from the city’s narrow streets in the 14th century, these vessels were used for ferrying the lower echelons of society around. By the 16th century, an estimated 10,000 gondolas were being used in Venice. But today the number has come down to 425.

Boscolo shares the Venetian waterways with just one other woman, but in a different craft. Chiara Curto, who is originally from Genoa, turned her passion for rowing into a profession when she successfully passed exams last year to row a flat-bottomed boat known as a sandolo or punt. There are around 40 such sandolos operating alongside gondolas for tourists.

There are stringent requirements for piloting the sandolo, just like a gondola. Curto was granted a licence after a similar six-month training process. “It is a tough process and a physically tiring job … there aren’t that many women who want to do it.” Curto said. She added that she had never been subjected to any sexism in the trade as her colleagues have been welcoming and supportive.

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But whoever is steering these ancient vessels, the presence of a clear solidarity can be felt when it comes to keeping the centuries-old tradition intact. Gondoliers held their first strike in the 1880s when Venice introduced a public motorised water bus service. That activism is prevalent even today, and gondoliers often protest against water taxis and speedboats, arguing that their reckless driving causes life-risks as they whip up waves that rock the smaller vessels floating nearby. In 2013, in an accident caused by a water bus crashing into a gondola a German tourist who was riding in with his family on the Grand Canal was killed.

According to Dominic Standish, a British professor of sociology based in Italy, “Ironically, the [gondolier] service has been maintained through the growth of tourism, and gondoliers have become unlikely champions of an ongoing war against the corrosive effects of big waves produced by motorboats, including the public water bus service. Inevitably, they are representative of Venice’s ancient traditions against the march of modern motorised water boats.”

Realto is adamant that he wishes more women would come on board as professional gondoliers. “Women do everything these days … they go to space, they fight in wars, so why not?”

After Giorgia Boscolo and Chiara Curto, why not?

– prepared by Durba Mandal of NewsGram. Twitter: @dubumerang