One of the most frequent Venetian images is that of the gondola with its gondolier standing in the stern and propelling the boat forward with a single long oar. Recently while I was leafing through a children’s book about Venice I read a paragraph about the history of these boats that claimed that the gondola’s original design was inspired by Viking long boats.  The story went that in the Middle Ages there had been commercial contact between the Scandinavians and Venetians, both maritime cultures.  The Venetians thought that the flat-bottomed nordic boats would be ideal for their lagoons.  I had never heard of this fascinating link and tried to find some confirmation of it but have not had any success.  Most articles don’t cite any specific origin of the gondola other than to note a mention in a 1094 document and the first images in paintings from the 15th century.  These early depictions are of boats that are shorter, wider and less streamlined in appearance than those we know today.  In the 1600s the gondola, which was used for private transport, began to look more like the contemporary version both in terms of shape and color.  Pitch had always been used for waterproofing, but in 1609 a decree was passed  – to limit the excessively gaudy decoration (!) of the gondole – that the entire boat had to be black.  Also, until the 20th century the boats often included  a removable cabin (felze) which protected passengers both from the weather and from prying eyes.  Today gondole are built to standard specifications:  11 meters long, made out of 280 different pieces of wood, slightly asymmetrical (the left side is larger than the right), with a characteristic iron prow-head (fero) that is rich in symbolism.  The oar is made of beechwood and rests in an oarlock (forcola) made of walnut.  In the past there may have been up to 10,000 gondole that plied the waters of the lagoon; the 400 or so that are left today are no longer a major means of transportation but a tourist attraction and an icon of Venice.