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June Artifact of the Month – Gondola Mania!

This month we’re taking a look at two very similar, but also very different, items that we have here at The Mariners’ Museum. We have two gondolas within our collection, a miniature work of a Venetian goldsmith that measures 2 and 1/8″ long, and a full size gondola that measures a whopping 35 feet and 8 inches long, and weighs about 1,100 pounds.

The miniature is made to scale of approximately 1:192, and it has two gondoliers included on the boat. The standing gondolier is 3/8 inch, while the second gondolier is sitting down, in front of the canopy which is hinged and can be opened. The seated gondolier is unique to the style of gondola’s prior to 1791, when the struggling Venetian state had to change to one man gondolas in order to downsize spending and save money. (That’s a downsize rate of 50 %!) The little gondola is made up of 18 carat gold, and decorated with gold filigree. The Mariners’ Museum purchased it from the Bodley Book Shop in New York in 1939, and while the exact goldsmith who created it is unknown, it is thought to have been made around 1840. In 1996, The Mariners’ Museum based a Christmas ornament on the miniature as part of a series of ornaments that were designed after pieces of the collection. The ornament was coated in 24 carat gold and available for purchase in the Gift store.

Miniature Venetian gondola. courtesy of The Mariners’ Museum.

The full size gondola resides in our International Small Craft Center, and is constructed of nine different types of wood: elm, oak, larch, lime, walnut, fir, cherry, cedar and beech. It is thought to have been built prior to 1850, and was constructed by the Casal Boatyard in Venice, Italy. The gondola was originally purchased in Venice in 1890 by the artist Thomas Moran, and shipped to Long Island, NY, where he used it for personal entertainment on Hook Pond. In 1950, The Mariners’ Museum received it as a gift from the Thomas Moran Collection of East Hampton Free Library, in Long Island, NY. The gondola is also one of the oldest existing gondolas, and is thought to be at least more than 150 years old.

Moran Gondola. The women are thought to be Thomas Moran’s wife, Mollie, and daughter, Ruth. The poler is George Fowler, a Montauk Indian in charge of taking care of the boat and acting as gondolier. Courtesy of the East Hampton Library, Long Island Collection.

In a letter written by Miss Ruth Moran, the daughter of Thomas Moran, in 1942, she reveals an interesting tale behind the gondola. According to Miss Moran, “Mr. Moran purchased the gondola from an old gondolier who owned it and was glad to part with it, as the care of the elaborate fittings was a burden to him. On returning to the Grand Hotel after purchasing the boat, the manager of the Hotel told Mr. Moran that the gondola had belonged to Robert Browning the poet, who had given it to the old man from whom Mr. Moran had bought it; Browning was leaving for England and had employed this man often and gave him the gondola in recognition of his faithful service. This old man had not spoken of this incident to Mr. Moran, and he only learned of it from the hotel after the sale had been made.” Unfortunately, this connection to Robert Browning has not been confirmed. There is nothing to prove that Browning did own the gondola, but the idea that it was possible provides it with a romantic tale. For more on Browning, his life and accomplishments, click HERE.

While drastically different in size and appearance, both the full sized gondola and the tiny one are extremely interesting pieces of our collection. One of the few things they have in common with each other is that they are both Venice-made. The little gondola is fascinating in the detail that was achieved despite its miniature size. The large gondola, while a beautiful piece, is interesting for the questionable provenance surrounding its ownership. Together, these two pieces provide an interesting juxtaposition of what kind of pieces the Museum has hidden in its hold.

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