VENICE, Italy — The stately gondola, symbol of Venice for more than 1,000 years, is in danger of disappearing.
The few remaining master builders are approaching old age, and there are only a handful of young apprentices to whom they can pass on their art.
Fearful that only motorboats will remain in the gracious canal city by the year 2000, Venice's Agency for the Conservation of the Gondola and the Rights of Gondoliers has launched a campaign to save the traditional art of building gondolas.
At the end of the 16th Century there were more than 10,000 of the narrow, 40-foot, flat-bottomed craft ferrying politicians, merchants and tradesmen on business and pleasure through the city's 180 winding canals.
The privacy of covered cabins afforded lovers an ideal clandestine rendezvous, while wily politicians could strike private deals away from the prying eyes of the public as their gondolas glided silently through the misty back canals.
Today the onslaught of motorized water buses and taxis has reduced the number of gondolas to fewer than 400, worked by about 370 gondoliers who make most of their living from the tourist trade, Sergio Vazzoler of the gondola agency said.
However, the real danger, Vazzoler said, is the diminishing number of craftsmen with the lifetime of knowledge needed to build the entirely handmade, all-wood gondolas and their elaborate traditional brass finishes.
In the five remaining squeri , gondola yards, in Venice there are only four maestri , working without diagrams or blueprints to plot the craft's carefully calculated starboard list and curve of the port gunwale needed to offset the pull of the gondolier's single oar. It takes one man working alone two to three months to build one gondola.
In the past, the art was passed down to the sons of the old masters. But low wages and the attractions of the quick money to be earned in the modern industrial complexes of the mainland have all but dried up the number of willing apprentices.
Now there are only about 10 youngsters working in the yards--far too few, Vazzoler said, to ensure the survival of an art that takes years to master.
In addition, gondolas, which sell for about 13 million lire, or about $9,300, are not lasting as long as they once did. In the past a gondola had a lifetime of about 30 years, if well-maintained. But the force of the wash caused by motorized craft has reduced that life span by about half.
These problems have raised the prospect of gondolas of the future being built of plastic--an idea which Vazzoler described as "horrifying."
The agency, appealing for the preservation of the traditional craft, has therefore proposed the establishment of a special gondola school, where four or five students at a time could be trained. The youngsters would start to learn the skill in the evenings after school and take up full-time apprenticeships when they completed their educations.
The agency also wants a museum dedicated to the gondola and its role in the history of the city, which is still known as La Serenissima (the Most Serene). Vazzoler stressed that the museum would reflect the still-vital role of the gondola in the daily life of Venice.
The first recorded mention of the gondola dates to AD 809, when an assault on Venice by King Pepin of Italy, son of the Emperor Charlemagne, was thwarted because his troops lacked the flat-bottomed craft needed to penetrate the shallow canals.
The gondola is still much in demand and not just by tourists for whom a visit to Venice would be incomplete without a gentle journey down the Grand Canal, steered by a singing gondolier dressed in the traditional striped T-shirt and straw boater.
Public gondola services, which take up to 20 people, are still the quickest and cheapest way of crossing the Grand Canal.