Venice: Licentious Gondoliers

Above, the superb frontispiece of Coryat’s Crudities, published in 1611. Thomas Coryat was an English traveller fairly credited as being the first person to undertake and record what we now know as the Grand Tour, a leisurely exploration of the major cultural sites in Europe. The following excerpt sees him in Venice, warning would-be travellers about “licentious” gondoliers. He explains the traghetto, the gondola ferry service that takes you from one side of the Grand Canal to the other. I remember that thirty or forty years ago there were still 13 points at which you could cross the GC by traghetto, as there had been in Coryat’s day. Now, sadly, there are only three. For locals they are an absolute boon, getting you and your shopping speedily home, bypassing the vaporetto and not having to trudge across endless bridges. For tourists it remains a cheap way of having the “gondola experience”, being only 2 euros a crossing. The gondoliers are carefully regulated, so they are unlikely to drag you off to a house of ill repute.

There are in Venice thirteen ferries or passages, which Ferries they commonly call Traghetti, where passengers may be transported in a Gondola to what place of the City they will. Of which thirteene, one is under this Rialto bridge. But the boatmen that attend at this ferry are the most vicious and licentious varlets about all the City. For if a stranger entereth into one of their Gondolas, and doth not presently tell them whither he will goe, they will incontinently carry him of their owne accord to a vicious house forsooth, where his plumes shall be well pulled before he commeth forth againe. Then he may afterward with Demosthenes buy too dear repentance for seeing Lais, except he doth for that time either with Ulysses stop his eares, or with Democritus pull out his eyes. Therefore I counsaile all my countrimen whatsoever, Gentlemen or others that determine hereafter to see Venice, to beware of the Circaean cups, and the Syrens melody, I meane these seducing and tempting Gondoleers of the Rialto bridge, least they afterward cry Peccavi [I have sinned] when it is too late.

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