Venice gondola death spurs Grand Canal revamp


Venice has teemed with boats for centuries, but a tragic gondola death has stirred anger on the canals and could change the face of the floating city’s most famous waterway.

The tourist’s funeral was held Friday in Germany accompanied by a delegation of gondoliers, but tensions have risen between the boater-hatted sailors and pilots of motorized “vaporetto” (ferries) that ply the island city.

Five people — two gondoliers and three vaporetto pilots — have been placed under investigation over the Aug. 17 crash, which killed Joachim Vogel, a professor who was enjoying a gondola ride with his family.

With gondola and vaporetto pilots blaming each other for the accident, the chief of the Venetto region, Luca Zaia, said the proliferation of motorized transport means the water traffic depicted in 18th century paintings should be a thing of the past.

The city has meanwhile proposed that shipping rules be overhauled to limit Grand Canal traffic by barring morning gondola rides on the channel, heavily restricting docking and reducing the number of goods barges and private motorboats.

“What happened was probably fate, but there is also the problem of regulating ever more intense traffic on the Grand Canal,” Venice Mayor Giorgio Orsoni said as he outlined his 26-point plan in August.

Orsoni is also calling for new drug and alcohol rules for the gondoliers and regular testing after police found that the pilot of the gondola that was carrying the German family had cocaine and hashish in his system.

The gondoliers are a tight-knit community who have been a feature of the city since the Renaissance. They are a popular if sometimes pricey draw for tourists drawn to their singing traditions and striped sailor shirts.

In the accident, which is still being investigated, the vaporetto apparently swerved to avoid one gondola, only to crush another with its stern against the dock near the Rialto Bridge.

Traffic along the Grand Canal averages 3,000 boats a day and peaks at around 4,000 on some days. Lined with palazzi that were built between the 13th and 18th centuries, the canal is an iconic image that has inspired poets and artists since time immemorial.

Traffic has been a problem since long before the accident, and earlier this year the canal was shut for a day to reduce air and water pollution and highlight the damage done to its banks by the boats’ wakes.

The gondoliers who row along it are now fighting to defend their reputation and have even staged a demonstration with their sleek black boats to protest against the increase in motorized traffic.

Nicola Falconi, the main representative of the gondoliers, said the traditional rivalry between the two groups had turned “ugly” since the fatal accident.

Tourists polled in the city said they were shocked by the accident, with some saying it had changed their minds about taking a gondola ride — once a must for any visitor.