The clash between meritocracy and maintaining family traditions is a perennial headache in business. It has taken on extra significance in Venice, where gondoliering has been passed from father to son for 1,000 years.
Yet a new rule making it even easier for the children of existing gondoliers to obtain a lucrative license to join the ancient profession has sparked allegations of nepotism in the lagoon city over a job that can bring in more than $117,000 a year.
The ruling by the city authority allows gondoliers’ offspring to skip a challenging theory exam, which includes foreign languages, to win the chance to steer the sleek black boats along the canals of Venice. They will still need to pass the practical exam.
Meritocracy or Family Tradition?
Davide Scano, a councillor, said that the move would further exclude outsiders. “We are ushering in the dynastic right to a license,” he said. Aldo Rosso, a former examiner, said that outsiders were already marked down in tests to allow gondoliers’ children to score more highly. Being able to talk with tourists should be a job requirement, he said. “You need those languages,” he added.
The 433 gondoliers have about 200 substitutes, who take over duties when there are shortages through illness or holiday. When a gondolier retires, the license can be passed on to a chosen substitute, which is likely to be a child. Only one gondolier today is a woman, whose father was a gondolier.
A half-hour ride costs $94, or $137 at night. Mr Rosso said that gondoliers could earn more than $117,000 a year.
In Venice, gondoliering has been passed from father to son for 1,000 years.
Andrea Balbi, the head of the association of gondoliers, denied that nepotism played any part in the rule change. “Sons can only avoid the exam if they have spent four years working with their fathers,” he said. “I am not the son of a gondolier, nor are more than half of Venice’s gondoliers,” he said. “This will never be a closed shop.”
Mr Balbi said it was crucial, however, that the tradition of gondoliering could continue to be passed on from father to son. “Every gondolier has a personal rowing style he will teach his son, so you can take one look at how a young gondolier rows and guess who his father is,” he said. Aldo Reato, a former head of the association, agreed. “A traditional trade should be handed down the generations,” he said. “Isn’t that what tradition is?”
Maurizio Carlotto, the deputy head of the organization, started teaching his son Giacomo to row when he was ten. “He will take over from me when I retire,” Mr Carlotto, 59, said. “Being a gondolier is in your blood. Customers always ask: ‘Are you the son of a gondolier?’ That’s what they want.”