Until his first day at Gondoliers School, nobody knew that Luigi was
anything out of the ordinary.
The reason nobody knew he was anything out of the ordinary was this:
nobody really knew Luigi at all. Oh, he was popular enough. He was
eighteen and slender and taller than most, with black hair and eyes. He
would have been handsome except he had this smile the Italians called
"tontone" which is hard to translate--there is no exact equivalent in
English. The closest I can come is this this: "goony." He had a goony
smile. He was strong but very gentle, and no one could ever remember
his having done a mean thing since he was five and, in truth, it
couldn't have been that mean, since no one could remember what exactly
he did back then. "Oh, yes," his mother would say; "Luigi has a fine
disposition and except for once when he was five, I have no complaints."
When pressured as to what he had done she said, "Oh, something, you
know how boys are."
Gondoliers' School deals strictly with seamanship, and it is a
three-year course. That's the minimum. Some young men take five ore
even six years to get their Gondoliers Diploma. The school is run by a
small staff, all retired gondoliers, and it is an honor to be a teacher.
The only requirement to be on the staff is this: you must not just be a
retired gondolier (preferably with thirty-five years or more of
service), you must also be bad tempered. Only the cruelest quality for
The reason is this: it is extraordinarily difficult to make a gondola go
smoothly, and only experts get diplomas. If you had a sweet-natured
fellow running the operation, he might pass a young man who wasn't good
enough and once word got out that there was an incompetent gondolier
working the Grand Canal, rumors would surely spread that the caliber of
gondoliers was down. The reason the rumor would surely spread is this:
everyone in Venice is jealous of the gondoliers. It is the finest job
in the city if not all Europe, and the highest standards must be upheld
at all times.
The reason it is difficult to make a gondola run smoothly is that the
gondola is weird-looking boat. It is very long--twenty-five feet--and
very heavy--thirteen hundred pounds. It is also shaped like the bottom
of a coffee saucer, like a mild "U." The shape is necessary because the
gondolier stands on the back of the boat and steers with his single oar,
and if the gondola were shaped, say like a canoe, the minute the
gondolier stood on the back his weight would make the boat capsize.
There are many tests along the way during the three years, but for
centuries, there has only been one final exam--"Tombolon Corner." Again,
there is no exact equivalent for "Tombolon"--the closest I can come, I
am embarrassed to say, is this: "SPLAT." SPLAT Corner is the final
SPLAT Corner got its name because so many gondolas go SPLAT when they
try and navigate it. It is in a very out-of-the-way part of Venice, one,
in fact, that few natives even know about. The two narrowest canals in
Venice intersect, and the total turning space has been measured exactly
at seven feet eight inches.
To take a twenty-five-foot boat and make it turn a corner seven feet
eight inches wide is not the easiest thing in the world to do.
On the first day of Gondoliers' School, in order to frighten the
students, the cruelest teacher available takes all the young men and
says, "Follow me." The students don't know where they are going, but
after an hour's trip, the teacher suddenly stops, and points, and says,
"That, you miserable idiots, is your final exam."
One-third of each class, on the average, decides then and there to seek
other form of occupation.
On Luigi's first day, Luigi and the four other would-be gondoliers took
the trek to SPLAT Corner and the teacher stopped and pointed
dramatically and said, "Look, you peanut-brained imbeciles, look at your
Two of the class decided immediately to open souvenir stands in the
Piazza San Marco and left without a word. A third turned deadly pale.
The fourth, the one nearest Luigi, began trembling out of control as he
repeated the word, "Impossible, impossible," again and again. To try and
make the poor fellow feel better, Luigi whispered, "Perhaps he's just
trying to frighten us, it can't be that difficult."
Unfortunately, sound travels over water and they were standing by the
waters of the canal. The teacher that day happened to be John the
Bastard, by far the cruelest man ever to grace the board of directors of
the Gondoliers' School.
"Luigi," he snapped.
Now Luigi turned deadly pale.
"Not so hard, eh?" said John the Bastard. "I heard you and I'm not
surprised--you've got a bad reputation--everyone knows you did something
mean when you were five."
"I was only trying--" Luigi began. " I was only trying to make him feel
better" was what he meant to say. but John the Bastard hollered
Luigi stopped his thought.
"You think we're jokes at Gondoliers' School, isn't that right, Luigi?
You think SPLAT Corner is easy, isn't that so, Luigi? He stood directly
in front of Luigi now, and he bellowed: "Well, we'll just see. All of
you stay right here."
He left them at attention and when he came back, he was rowing his own
personal gondola. All black (gondolas are black--by law) and shiny. He
got out and gestured for Luigi to get in. "See how easy it is, smart
Luigi didn't understand and said so.
"I want you to make the turn at SPLAT Corner," John the bastard said.
"If it's not so hard--that's what you said, I'm just quoting you--you
should be able to do it without scratching my gondola. And now he made
a horrible smile. "And if you do scratch it--your punishment will be to
shine my gondola every night after class for the next three years. Or
five years. Or however long it takes you to graduate, and since I'm
your teacher I can promise you I don't think you'll ever graduate."
Luigi gulped and stood alone in John the Bastard's boa, holding the oar.
He looked at SPLAT Corner, all of seven feet eight inches at its widest
point. He looked at the gondola, all twenty-five feet in length. Then
he closed his eyes and shook his head.
(I should add at this point that the normal training procedure at
Gondolier's School is this: you don't even think about attempting SPLAT
Corner until midway through the second year. Then you begin with a
little boat the size of a bathtub. Then, when you've mastered that, you
get a slightly bigger bathtub. Then a rowboat. Then a bigger rowboat.
Then a small canoe, a large canoe, etc. Even with all this training,
only three candidates in this century have made the SPLAT Corner turn
the first time without severely damaging their gondolas.)
"Go!" John the Bastard shouted.
Luigi kind of zipped around SPLAT Corner and out of sight with a foot of
clearance on each side.
John the Bastard's immediate instinct was to flee to the famous
Gondolier's Tavern and have a gallon of beer to settle his nerves. But
his reputation for toughness was well earned, and he managed to shout
Luigi, out of sight around the corner, spoke very loudly. "I couldn't
quite make out what you said."
"I said come back here!" John the Bastard cried.
Luigi returned through SPLAT Corner--only there wasn't room to turn the
boat totally around so this time he did it backwards.
At the sight of his gondola coming toward him in reverse, John the
Bastard sort of came unglued. He muttered and sputtered and spittle
came to his lips and he blinked his eyes and shook his head before
managing to get out, "Two gallons of beer, at least two gallons of
bear." Then he turned and raced of in the direction of the Gondolier's
Class was definitely over for the day.
How did Luigi manage such an extraordinary feat? For Luigi, it wasn't
extraordinary at all. Remember I mentioned before that no one knows him
well? The reason for that was this: Luigi had secrets.
He had known all his life he would someday be a gondolier; his family
had been in that occupation for hundreds of years. And he loved his
father's boat. Nothing pleased him more than sitting and watching the
palaces go by as his father rowed smoothly with the single oar.
Luigi never needed much sleep and when he was seven or eight, he used to
get up before dawn and creep out and sit in his father's gondola and
imagine great voyages. These imaginings grew as he did, and when he was
thirteen, he first had the courage to take the boat for little rides by
himself. While the rest of Venice slept.
By the time he was fifteen his little rides grew longer, and one day he
became so absorbed that he realized too late that the sun soon to rise.
He knew he could never get home undiscovered unless he tried some
One of those shortcuts was SPLAT Corner.
Luigi didn't know its name then. All he knew was that he'd found this
terrific narrow place for cutting the time home in half, and so great
was his fear of his father's discovery what he'd done, he just went
through it without much though.
From then on, he always took the shortcut. For five years he'd been
rowing in semi-darkness along the black canals, always getting safely
home in time, tying up the boat, scooting up to bed before anyone
The fact that what he had done was fairly unusual was something he never
realized until that first, soon to be famous, day in class. (There was
talk of nothing else in the Gondolier's Tavern for weeks. At one point
it was suggested to pass Luigi then and there--since it was obvious you
couldn't teach him anything about the gondola, why try and teach him
anything about the gondola, why try and teach him about the gondola?
but ultimately the decision was to have him stay the full three years.
No one had ever graduated in less, and gondoliers love tradition.)
As I said, Luigi had secrets. This, the dark silent pre-dawn rides, was
a little secret. Luigi, like the rest of us, had lots of little
Excerpted from The Silent Gondoliers by William Goldman. . Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.