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Safety changes for gondolas

Tom Kington
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Tourists sail on gondolas on August 29, 2013 on a canal of Venice.— PHOTO: AFP
Tourists sail on gondolas on August 29, 2013 on a canal of Venice.— PHOTO: AFP

They have cruised the canals for centuries, elegantly painted in black. But a fatal crash means Venice’s gondolas now face a makeover, complete with reflective patches, registration plates and GPS tracking.

The initiative is part of the city’s response to the death in August of a German tourist, who was fatally injured when the gondola he and his family were in was crushed against a dock on the Grand Canal by a reversing water bus.

The accident highlighted the constant traffic jams on the Grand Canal as gondolas, water taxis and water buses fight for space, with a study showing that on busy days 1,600 vessels pass under the Rialto bridge every 10 hours.

Scrambling for solutions, the city’s Mayor has come up with 26 suggestions for reducing congestion and collisions, including restricting types of vessels to certain times of day and drug testing for boatmen and women.

Now, following weeks of talks, the new rules for gondolas will start in November, said the transport assessor, Ugo Bergamo. Identification numbers will help CCTV operators spot gondoliers breaking traffic regulations, while the GPS trackers will indicate if they are where they should be.

“The gondolas will also have reflective patches”, said Mr. Bergamo, “but nothing big, just like the ones you would put on the wheels of a bike”.

However small they are, the patches mark a break with a strict tradition of painting gondolas all black, which dates from 1562.

Fed up with the competition between nobles to paint their fleets of gondolas with ever more garish colours — as well as adding gilded prows, carvings and flashy cushions — the city’s then doge said the boats had to be all black — a rule that has lasted until now.

One Venice gondola builder said he agreed with the new plan.

Cristian Diordit has followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, who built gondolas in the city, and he is determined to keep alive a trade that has existed for 1,000 years and involves the careful wetting of wooden ribs before they are held over low flame to produce the curved hulls.

But Diordit said he was happy to stick on a few reflective patches.

“We have to move with the times,” he said.

“There is just too much traffic now. I would go further and test some of the older gondolas on the canals now, which may have been weakened by the wakes of motorboats.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013


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