Monday, April 16, 2018

Death in Venice

Until fairly recently--or very recently when viewed in the context of Venice's long history--Venetians made their final trip on this earth under the power of oar: my last post included a photograph taken in 1961 by Fulvio Roiter of a coffin being rowed to the cemetery island of San Michele. But you almost never see this any more. In nearly 8 years of living here I've never seen it at all.

Which is why the sight of a gondola cloaked in black waiting in the canal before the church of SS Giovanni and Paolo was such a surprise last Thursday.

At the door of the church stood a large spray of flowers, whose silk sash identified it as a memorial gift from the Danieli gondola stand. This made me think the deceased must have been a gondolier. But when I asked a young gondolier loitering beside the gangplank leading to the funeral boat if this was the case he answered "Non lo so," in a tone that suggested not only did he not know, he really didn't care.  

He then boarded one of the two gondole double-parked at the end of the gangplank (see images below) and returned with a slender red-and-white striped pole and sign. He set up the pole beside the gangplank, then affixed to it the usual "Gondola Service" sign you see at gondola stands, setting out the price and terms of service in different languages.

Strange though it seemed, I assumed this was part of the final rites and that, as such, and in spite of the young man's professed (and possibly feigned ignorance), the deceased had to have been a gondolier.  For why would any other type of Venetian want to explicitly associate his or her last voyage with a blatantly touristic activity? The vast majority of Venetians wouldn't, as they say, be caught dead paying to take a ride from a gondola stand.

It wasn't until a couple of days later that it occurred to me that the "Gondola Service" sign wasn't serving as a prop for the funeral--that is, indicating the profession of the deceased--but was merely doing what those signs always do: soliciting tourists for a gondola ride. And that the second gondola double-parked beside the funeral boat wasn't part of the funeral at all.

Which is why the young gondolier replied to my question about the deceased with what struck me as such cold indifference. He actually did not know or care whom the deceased was. He was just angry that the funeral gondola was temporarily moored in the place of his gondola for hire.

That is, that the death of a Venetian was potentially cutting into his tourist-based business.

Indeed, for as long as the funeral gondola was there, his passengers would have to step into the  black-draped funeral gondola before stepping into his own gondola. (Though judging by the utterly nonplussed response of two tourists whose Italian guide paused at the sight of the funeral gondola to snap her own photo of what she described to them in English as an extremely rare sight, most of his clients aren't likely to have registered what they were passing through.)
In any case, I didn't disturb the mass going on inside the church, and didn't linger to see the mourners and coffin come out. Instead, I walked to the bridge at the end of Rio dei Mendicanti, from which I could watch the funeral gondola pass out into the north lagoon toward the island of San Michele--and take pictures from the same vantage point Fulvio Roiter seemed to have used in his photo from 1961.

The sight of the gondola making that trip was still on my mind late in the afternoon that same day when I boarded the traghetto to cross the Grand Canal at Santa Sofia and vaguely happened to catch a few words said by the rower in the prua, or front of the boat, to the one in the poppa. Something--I don't remember exactly what--that seemed to allude to the, or at least a funeral. I mentioned that I'd seen a coffin being rowed to San Michele earlier that day and the man nodded and gestured to another traghetto-style gondola moored to one side of us, to indicate that there it was, the very gondola that had been used--though no longer covered in black cloth, and without the boards that had been laid across its mid-section to support the coffin.

I asked if the deceased had been a gondolier, and he nodded again. Then gestured this time to the traghetto station's little hut on shore, saying he'd worked there.

Was it something sudden? I asked. Yes, he said, a heart attack.

Was he very old? No, sessanta, he replied--in a way that acknowledged that both he and I were old enough (in contrast to the gondolier I'd very briefly questioned earlier that day) for 60 to seem hardly any age at all. At least not age enough to suddenly die.

I cross the Grand Canal on that traghetto a couple of times a week, and beginning with the next time I do I'm sure I'll start to look for who's missing from the usual crew, from among those whom in the course of our usual day we may not even notice that we notice. And if we hardly notice their presence, how will we notice their absence?

But I suspect we notice more than we know.  

Especially in a small town like Venice. For beneath the smothering tourist crush, Venice is a very small town. And getting smaller every day.     


  1. It is good you were there to see, then to think, and then to find out who was making that final voyage. How coldly commercial of the young gondolier near the funeral gondola.

    1. Well, he was young, Yvonne, and had things to do, and is at an age when death is still a thing that only happens to others...

  2. Auvraisien
    Thank you very much, Steven, for this report on a rather exceptional and moving event and this careful investigation. You have brought answers to many questions I put in the comment of your previous post. I have never paid attention before to the absence of a “ferro di prua” at the front of the gondola used for traghetto. Of course, there is no real front and back in these boats, or rather an alternating front and back, and always a man at the prua, rowing or sitting, as a counterweight. Thus a ferro di prua is not necessary for the balance of the boat. Looking at the funeral gondola on the rio dei Mendicati before reading your text, I noticed there was no ferro di prua and so that was probably a specific boat for funerals. In fact, it was a traghetto gondola used as a funeral one. Crossing the Canal Grande with the traghetto, I’ll not forget any more the possible use of these boats for funeral. The gondoliers for the traghetto may have a different status from those for tourists, may be employees versus self-employed people. Do you know if the gondoliers of the traghetto are municipal employees? That might explain the indifference of the young gondolier to the funeral of his colleague, and especially the disappearance of several traghetto over the years. Nice weather currently in Venice, I suppose? Thank you for all your posts.

    1. You are right, Auvraisien, about there being a difference between the gondoliers who work the traghetti and those who work the gondole, and I think it's along the lines you suggest, but I can't remember exactly what it is at the moment. I know a position on the traghetto is considered less desirable (because less profitable) than on a gondola, though I don't think the gondola gondoliers are really "self-employed," as I seem to recall the earnings of each stand as being divided among those who work there according to things like seniority. You're extremely observant--moreso than I, who didn't recognize the funeral boat as the type used as a traghetto. But I've always been inclined to find the sight of standing passengers being rowed on a traghetto as reminiscent of Charon's route across the river Styx (influenced, no doubt, by the Arnold Bocklin painting Isle of the Dead I used to see all the time at NYC's Metropolitan Museum).

  3. I finally made my trip to Venice and had planned to visit SS Giovanni e Paolo on my last morning as we were staying close by. I saw the funeral cortege arrive, and the flowers and guessed it might be the funeral of a traghetto gondolier so was especially interested in your post. I had planned to come to Venice in 2016 with my husband and have been reading your blog since late 2015. Sadly my husband died and two years later I made the trip with my grandaughter. I have loved your insiders view of the city and learned a great deal which enhanced our trip for which I thank you. I hope to be back.

    1. I'm very sorry you weren't able to make your planned visit with your husband, but am glad that you did ultimately get here, and with your granddaughter. I'm terrible about replying to comments, but thank you for your very kind one.