The Blonde in the Gondola

Tiziano Scarpa

This is a prose version of the most famous Venetian song:

The other evening I took the blonde girl out in a gondola. But the pleasure made the poor thing drop off to asleep. She slept on my arm, every now and then I woke her; but the boat’s rocking put her back to sleep. In the sky the moon was half hidden among the clouds. The lagoon was calm, the wind had dropped. Only a light breeze ruffled her hair and bared her breast. Carefully contemplating the features of my treasure, that little face so smooth, that mouth and that beautiful breast, I felt a longing in my heart, a stirring, a kind of euphoria that I can’t explain. For a while I respected her sleep, and put up with it, despite Love in person arousing me. And I very slowly tried to lie down there with her; but how can you lie relaxed with a burning fire beside you? Luckily in the end I got tired of letting her sleep, and I behaved like a shameless person, but I had nothing to regret. Because, my God, what beautiful things I said to her and did to her! Seriously, I have never in my life been so happy.

The narrator of this story is not a gondolier. He took the blonde girl out on a gondola, certainly, but this does not mean he was rowing. She falls asleep on his arm. How could she do this with a gondolier, who has to remain standing and, what’s more, on the very narrow stern? So the expression ‘I took her’ means that the narrator offered her a ride in a gondola.

The presence of a third person on board, the gondolier, is taken for granted. He is not mentioned because he is little more than a motor, an element that is part of the gondola itself, of whom it is not worth speaking, as if by saying ‘gondola’ everything is said. There is no need to name the oar, the oar peg or other details.

The first surprising thing about this song is the order of the first sentence, the syntax of the first lines (La biondina, in gondola, l’altra sera... l’ho portata io! - Lit: The blonde, in a gondola, the other evening... took her out I!). Let’s look at them closely: ‘La biondina in gondola, l’altra sera...’ So, what has this lovely blonde done? No, it isn’t her: The girl, who seemed at first to be the subject of the sentence, turns out to actually be a direct object. The real subject appears at the end. The sequence is important. First there is the focus of the desire, the blonde. Then the means of satisfying it, the gondola. Then the time, which in this case also acts as a means, the evening. And, finally, the subject who has put all these elements together: I.

I put the blonde in the gondola, and the gondola in the evening. Beneath, there is the little seductive shell of the gondola: swaying, slowness, slapping of oar and hull on the expanse of calm water. Above, the big seductive shell of the evening: lagoon intimacy, away from the network of urban canals, a glimmer of moon between the clouds, a breath of air in the silent space. In addition, as seen, the blonde has been made to think she is a subject who acts, while actually she is the object who undergoes the action. The protagonist is in reality the protopathist, and she doesn’t know.

The initial situation is comic. A seducer has taken a girl out in a gondola, but he has made a mistake in his calculations. The poor thing falls asleep. ‘But how come? Instead of keeping me company and doing something more interesting, you fall asleep?’ The blonde falls asleep due to the delight of being in a gondola. She has completely given in to the pleasure offered by the seducer, the evening rocking of this lulling boat. And yet everything seemed perfect for seducing her: the gondola, the lagoon, the moon... The seducer has been betrayed by his own means of seduction! He thought the gondola would have facilitated things for him, and instead it has complicated them. What should have been simply a preliminary pleasure has become the predominant pleasure, to the point of overcoming the girl. 

The seducer realises he has got it all wrong. He doesn’t blame the girl. His considering her as that ‘poor thing’ is very tender; she is not guilty. She has done no more than take seriously what the seducer offered her. ‘Poor thing’ is an absolution. But, at the same time, it is a condemnation: poor fool! She didn’t realise that the gondola ride was only a pretext and a setting for quite different pleasures. The more serious fault is that of the seducer, who hadn’t realised who he was dealing with. In order to seduce her, perhaps he was counting on that same gullibility that is carrying her away while leaving herself between his arms. The girl is too present in the situation, believes in it too much, takes it for what it is and not for what it could become. In so doing, she sleeps. Those who stick too close to the world as it is, in reality absent themselves.

What kind of girl is she, who takes literally what was only a pretext? And what is a gondola ride: a pleasure in itself or a metaphor? Something that really takes place or the prefiguration of something beyond the events? The announcement of a beyond-fact, a trans-event?

The girl falls asleep on the man’s arm, making him into a kind of pillow. She has turned him into one of the boat’s fittings as, on the other hand, had already happened to the gondolier. The blonde has made the seducer a part of the gondola.

The seducer finds himself having to fight against his own means of seduction. He wakes the girl up, but the gondola makes her fall asleep again. He wakes her, the gondola puts her back to sleep. This is the most famous Venetian song. It is the worst advertisement for Venice’s most important symbol. If you want to seduce girls, don’t take them on a gondola ride: they will suddenly fall asleep. And even if you try to wake them, the gondola will quickly take them away, plunging them back into sleep.

Reflections of ancient stories emerge here: princes who waken sleeping beauties with a kiss, funereal frigidity erotically revived. But the seducer can do nothing against the power of this black, floating, cradle-coffin, which sucks the beauty into sleep, contending with life for its pleasures. Which is the strongest pleasure? The kinetic one of excitement, frenzy and orgasm? Or the static one of inertia, melting and abandon? The gondola supplies this post-orgasmic tenderness, this insidious and pervasive torpor to one who is already satisfied even before being so. A mighty battle takes place between seducer and gondola, between vitality and lethargy in the verses of a short trip. The fascination of sleep threatens to have won her: hers is a removal of life, but not for this reason any less enchanting or attractive. Even the seducer, at a certain point, is tempted to let himself drift off to sleep!

The seducer engages in a fight with the gondola, which wants to absorb him into itself. It is as if the body of the seducer, in contact with the gondola, risks undergoing a metamorphosis, changing matter: becoming a pillow on which the blonde rests. The seducer fights against being ‘gondola-fied’, so as not to become one of the boat’s decorations. He reacts, countering the effects of the gondola on the girl by waking her. He will be rewarded for this.

This song tells an exemplary moral fable: don’t trust your chances to excessively effective means, because, instead of tools, they could become the real winners, taking pleasure in what you yourself wanted to enjoy. The breeze blows the scarf from the girl’s breast, undressing her instead of the seducer doing so. It is the breeze itself that caresses the blonde’s naked skin, while all the seducer can do is look, paralysed in his role as a pallet, a human bedroom.

Take care with the tool you use to gain your ends, because it will try to steal your objective and keep it for itself. The end justifies the means, but the means decide the end.

Some considerations on the type of this bizarre ballad remain to be made. What is it all about? Is it a serenade? And to whom? Certainly it is not to the blonde; it speaks about her in the third person. There is no ‘you’ to turn to. And then, if anything, the ballad tells a private story, a secret that concerns the blonde, that it shares with her and that it would not be the case to wave about by putting to music.

Much less is it a serenade to someone else. It is unthinkable that a seducer should woo a woman telling her how things went with another. ‘You know, you lovely dark-haired girl, the other evening I wasn’t here with you, under this balcony singing, because I took your rival, the blonde, out in a gondola...’

Perhaps it is necessary to imagine a specialist audience. Considering that the narrator doesn’t strike a very fine figure, we have to assume that it is a male confession, a technical account, a professional report. It is reportage offered to his equals, in an assembly of seducers. A meeting behind closed doors, in a club for men only. In front of your colleagues you can allow yourself to describe defeats, disastrous tactics, total or partial failures, unwanted effects, possible solutions and remedies. It is an informative account, for the common use of womanisers.

But sexual anecdotes are usually lively, they frolic on the happy inflections of an andante or a presto. So what is this dreamy rhythm, this musical rolling all about then? These would seem to suggest a hidden homosexual complicity, as if the community of seducers exchanged stories in a sensual atmosphere at a relaxed pace. I would be inclined, though, to make a different interpretation. This song is a mimetic-narrative contrivance more than a seductive-erotic one. Making a report in front of the assembly of his fellow seducers, the narrator sets the scene that he experienced, he builds the scenery using music, he reproduces the slow beat of the oar with the even accents of the octonary verse. And, in doing so, he induces sleep in his listeners. It is a song that mounts a guard against itself. Beware of the tones and rhythms of wooing! You thought your behaviour was an irresistible serenade, but it was actually a soporific lullaby.


Tiziano Scarpa is an Italian novelist, playwright and poet


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