One of the oldest surviving Venetian gondolas is now on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The 37-foot-long craft will welcome visitors to the upcoming Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals exhibit, which opens February 20th.
Built around 1850 in traditional style, probably by the now-defunct Casal boatyard, it was purchased in Venice by Hudson River School artist Thomas Moran from gondoliere Giovanni Hitz in 1890. Moran brought it back to his home in East Hampton where he and his family would take it for picnics on Hook Pond.
The gondola—according to the manager of the hotel where the Morans stayed during the 1890 visit—had once belonged to the poets Robert and Elizabeth Browning. Whether or not Moran actually believed the story—which may have provided further incentive for him to bring the boat back to the summer residence in East Hampton, New York—he was certainly amused enough to recount the tale to friends and visitors to his studio.
The arrival of the gondola at Hook Pond, East Hampton, drew local attention and was written about in the East Hampton Star on September 13, 1890. The paper described a small party who “enjoyed a sail around the pond on that novel craft” steered by George Fowler. Moran had hired Fowler, a Montauk Indian, in the belief that he could apply his knowledge of the canoe to the similarly shaped gondola. Moran, his family, and friends spent hours enjoying the gondola. For Moran, it was a token of his beloved city of Venice.
Over time the boat sprang multiple leaks and began to degrade. Moran had it rebottomed, but eventually he just kept it in two separate parts (the hull and the felze, a detachable cabin) in outbuildings on his Hamptons house. When he died in 1926, his daughter donated the gondola along with her father’s papers, correspondence and pictures to the East Hampton Library. They kept the gondola on the front lawn for almost three decades, until finally in 1950 they awoke to the reality that this was not how you conserve a delicate and rare 100-year-old boat.
The gave it to the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, who not only put it on display in proper preservation conditions in their International Small Craft Center, but also took the extraordinary step of sending the vessel to the traditional Tramontin family boatyard in Venice in 1999 for a full restoration using authentic Venetian gondola construction techniques. In a lovely moment of historical serendipity, the eldest Tramontin had been an apprentice at the Casal boatyard in his youth.
Here’s some footage of the gondola on display at the Mariners’ Museum and being gingerly lifted by cranes into a truck for transportation to the National Gallery of Art.