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What is a Gondola?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term gondola can refer to a number of different things, each connected only by the general meaning of a vessel used to transport people. The most common use of the word gondola is to refer to a thin boat, usually associated with the Venetian canals. A gondola may also refer to an aerial lift, a small cabin carried through the air on a steel cable, for viewing an area from above or for transport over difficult terrain such as deep snow at ski resorts. Lastly, a gondola is the basket beneath a hot air balloon in which passengers and cargo are carried.

While gondolas are not the only type of boat used in the canals of Venice, they are the most well recognized. Gondolas are approximately 36 feet (11m) long and only 5 feet (1.5m) wide. Gondolas curve slightly to the right, rather than being symmetrical like most craft, to compensate for the fact that they are rowed with only one oar. This balance allows the gondola to travel in a straight path even though they are being rowed exclusively on the right side. The use of only one oar is a necessary design in the city of Venice, where the canals are quite thin and the traffic on the waterways can be quite dense. The ends of a gondola stick quite a ways out of the water as well, allowing the boat to be maneuvered quickly and precisely with a minimum expenditure of energy.

A common gondola will carry up to six people, while some larger ferry gondolas, known as gondola traghetto, may hold as many as fifteen or twenty people. The person who rows a gondola, known as a gondolier, stands while steering the craft leisurely through the city canals. Many gondolas are equipped with small canopies for passengers to sit beneath to hide from the beating Italian sun. In the past, Venetian law required that gondolas be painted black, and as a result the majority of passenger gondolas in Venice are still the traditional black color.

A gondola lift, also known as a cable car or aerial lift, consists of a long steel cable hooked to two turning points, with a number of passenger cabins carried along by the cable. For longer stretches, a number of supports are placed between the two main points to hold the cable up and provide additional stability. An electric bullwheel pulls the cable through, bringing the gondolas along. This system allows for the speed at which the gondolas move to be varied, so it may be slowed down for passengers to disembark or to take pictures, for example. Gondola lifts are most common at ski resorts, though they are also found over many scenic areas, where they are often called sky rides.

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