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Italy's First Gondolier Grads

June 11, 1995|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO

VENICE — Gondoliers have been plying their high-prowed craft through the labyrinthine canals of Venice for centuries, but in the new Europe, conformity counts as much as history: The new generation of gondoliers will have to show language skills, a knowledge of art and architecture--and a gondolier diploma--before boarding their first passenger.

"So many new laws and regulations went into effect this year that we had to set up a school to teach them all," said Maura Mingardi at the association of gondoliers' back-alley office.

In March, 74 would-be gondoliers turned out for a two-month, government-organized course featuring as much writing as rowing. Taught three afternoons each week at the Barbarigo Technical School here, the classes are designed to produce Euro-friendly gondoliers.

All of the students are men but only, says Mingardi, because "no women applied." The special upright, single-oared rowing that is a Venetian trademark is the easiest class for most student gondoliers, but everybody has to go to school three mornings a week just to make sure.

In the classroom, courses touch on Venetian history, the riches of the city's art and monuments, and the fragile, damaged environment of the canals themselves. Gondoliers-to-be are expected to know the difference between the Dorsoduro and Cannaregio neighborhoods and how to find their way between them. They must pass an exam on water traffic laws, and each also is expected to speak at least a smattering of English and French. Never mind that the tourists most waterborne these days are strong-currency-emboldened Japanese and Germans. A gondola's flag drops at $50.

May 31 was graduation day for the first class of new-age gondoliers. When, if ever, they start rowing is another matter. Venice authorizes 430 gondolier licenses, and they are traditionally passed father to son, or are sold when a gondolier dies or reaches mandatory retirement at 65.

Mingardi says a recent wave of retirements has lowered the average gondolier age to about 50. Worse, newly minted gondoliers will have to get in line behind apprentices who have already been waiting for up to seven years for an open license.

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