A gondola is a traditional Venetian rowing boat. Gondolas were for centuries the chief means of transportation within Venice and still have a role in public transport, serving as traghetti (ferries) over the Grand Canal. Their primary role, however, is to carry tourists on rides at established prices.
The gondola is propelled by an oarsman (the gondolier) who stands facing the bow and rows with a forward stroke, followed by a compensating backward stroke. Contrary to popular belief the gondola is never poled like a punt as the waters of Venice are too deep. Until about two hundred years ago, gondolas often were fitted with a "felze," a small open cabin, for to protect the passengers from sun or rain. A sumptuary law of Venice required that gondolas should be painted black, and they are customarily so painted now.
It is estimated that there were several thousand gondolas during the 18th century. There are a several hundred today, most of which are for hire by tourists, while a few are in private ownership and use.
The construction of the gondola continued to evolve until the mid-20th century, when the city government prohibited any further modifications. The oar or rèmo is held in an oar lock known as a fòrcola. The forcola is of a complicated shape, allowing several positions of the oar for slow forward rowing, powerful forward rowing, turning, slowing down, rowing backwards, and stopping. The ornament on the front of the boat is called the fèrro(meaning iron) and can be made from brass, stainless steel, or aluminium. It serves as decoration and as counterweight for the gondolier standing near the stern.
Gondolas are hand made using 8 different types of wood (fir, oak, cherry, walnut, elm, mahogany, larch and lime) and are composed of 280 pieces. The oars are made of beech wood. The left side of the gondola is made longer than the right side. This asymmetry causes the gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke.
The origin of the word "gondola" has never been satisfactorily established, despite many interesting theories.