Standing on the back of their boats in black-and-white striped T-shirts, long poles firmly gripped in hands, Venice’s smiling gondoliers have ensured residents get from A to B for hundreds of years.
But just as roads need maintaining, so do the Venetian canals where these floating chauffeurs go to work. And in recent years, rising water levels have made things far more difficult.
Global warming means higher tides, and increasingly frequent cases of the acqua alta phenomenon – when high tides in the northern Adriatic Sea partially flood the city. And the sheer quantity of rubbish that has been dumped in the canals has pushed water levels even higher.
Gondoliers have already been forced to ditch the risso, a curved iron ornament placed on gondolas’ sterns, because their boats are getting stuck under bridges.
Now, one of the lagoon city’s boatmen is determined to preserve this unique way of life by clearing the waterways so they can be enjoyed by future generations.
Stefano Vio, 65, is head of a voluntary unit of gondoliers who swap their straw hats for diving masks and periodically descend to the canals’ murky depths. They resurface clutching an array of improbable objects, including tyres, ventilators, full fuel tanks and uncorked bottles of wine.
“We are cleaning the canals one by one,” Vio tells i. “And when we have finished, we will start again.”
Launched in 2019, the Venice Gondoliers Divers Volunteers association has cleared 14.5 tons of rubbish so far. Aided by winches and small cranes, the divers load waste on to boats, before it is taken to an incineration plant on the island of Giudecca to be destroyed.
“It would cost too much for the city council to clean the canals on their own,” Vio says. “So we created this association as an act of love for our city.”
Gondolas have been gliding through Venice’s waterways for almost a millennium: in a decree published in 1094, Vitale Faliero – the 32nd Doge of Venice – used the term gondolam for the first time.
Local painters Carpaccio and Bellini provided early depictions of gondolas in the 1400s, before numbers of the vessels reached an estimated 9,000 in the 17th century. Today, more than 400 Venetians hold gondolier licences.
Vio is part of a dynasty of gondoliers stretching back six generations. He retired a year ago, passing his licence to his son (the industry is hereditary, as stated by a strict professional code regulating everything from the boatmen’s dress code to their gondolas’ design). So Vio now has more time to organise the waste recovery missions.
Much of the rubbish reaches the canals by mistake, with tyres strung on the sides of barges freed when boats crash into jetties during clumsy moorings. Some is intentionally discarded by residents: the divers have found items including chandeliers, desk lamps, bidets and stoves.
The association, which has a two-year renewable agreement with the city council, has more than 25 members, around half of whom are trained divers. It conducts around six recovery missions a year, when, two divers, are aided by a dozen technicians on the deck of a boat.
Visibility in Venice’s muddy, greenish waters is poor, so divers stick close to the canals’ boundaries, feeling with clenched fists as they inch forward in search of discarded objects. “Anybody who is used to diving in the Maldives won’t stand a chance in Venice,” Vio jokes. “There, you have visibility of 30m. Here, you have 20cm.”
Of Venice’s 276 canals, around 100 are shallow enough to be dived, and the volunteers have conducted 20 missions in 12 canals so far. They have permission to dive only from 8am to 2pm, limiting how much they can bring to the surface. “There is so much stuff down there we cannot collect it all,” Vio says.
He has been diving since the 90s. Eight years ago, he went to see the wreck of the Second World War merchant ship SS Thistlegorm off Egypt, which was sunk in the Red Sea, in 1941. What he saw there provided his eureka moment.
“We found a cargo of rubber boots in the hold of the ship and after all of those years they were in mint condition,” Vio says. “I realised it must take just as long for all of those rubber tyres that fall off boats in Venice to perish, and the canals must be full of them.”
Cleaning Venice’s canals, Vio says, could help architectural treasures from floods. While Mose, the city’s €5bn floods defences, has been operational since 2020, it kicks in only when tides rise above 110cm, meaning lower-lying parts of the city are frequently submerged.
Cleaning the canals, Vio claims, helps water flow more easily into the lagoon and out to sea. “We are not going to stop cases of acqua alta, but we can certainly help,” he says.
While Venice is being deserted by youngsters due to rocketing house prices and rents, the gondolier community remains youthful, Vio says, with young boatmen attracted by the potential to earn large wages.
Now that he has retired, he is determined to help them thrive. “This city has given me everything,” says Vio. “It is nice to be able to give something back.”