VENICE, Italy – Cross any bridge in Venice and listen for the accordion music drifting up from the canal. Look down, and there will be a gondolier ferrying starry-eyed tourists along the narrow waterways.
By tradition, they are stripe-shirted, locally born and male.
But a German woman has won the right to join them — despite having failed the exam to be a gondolier.
The Veneto Regional Tribunal has ruled that the Locanda Art Deco hotel, Alexandra Hai's employer, can transport guests around the lagoon city in its own gondola.
The ruling, under appeal by City Hall, challenges enduring Venetian tradition as well as Italy's resistance to liberalization of any kind.
"This tribunal has opened a crack that undermines what was the closed caste of gondoliers," said Mariagrazia Romeo, a lawyer representing the hotel.
The issue is not about excluding outsiders, the gondoliers say, but about maintaining traditions that have drawn tourists to their black-lacquered gondolas for generations. For them, the image and uniformity is part of their service.
"It's not like gondoliers want a monopoly," said Roberto Luppi, president of the association of Venice's 425 official gondoliers. "It's about safeguarding long-standing traditions."
Licensed gondoliers have to pass exams and prove themselves capable of steering the sleek boats along congested canals. They have a dress code detailing even the width of the stripes of their shirts. They must observe rules on how their gondolas are fitted, down to the colors of the chairs and benches — and face sanctions in case of violations.
In return, they charge princely sums to ferry romantics around the city's waterfront palazzi.
There are no rules stating that gondoliers must be from Venice, but most are.
Romeo concedes that Hai failed the exam, officials say more than once.
But Hai does have a boating license, which so far has been sufficient, and in court documents the hotel describes her as a "capable and passionate gondola pilot."
Repeated tries to reach Hai for comment were not successful.
The attempt by the gondoliers to protect any inroads in their profession is nothing new in Italy, where unions remain strong and bitter disputes often spring up against any liberalization of licensing.
Last summer, for example, taxi drivers paralyzed Rome and Milan for a few days in massive protests against attempts to make it easier for people to get licenses to drive cabs. The dispute, which continues, has already prompted authorities to water down the measures.
Over the years, gondoliers have staged waterborne protests, putting down their oars to demand that their interests be better protected.
The current case started when the hotel appealed a City Hall ruling banning it from transporting guests in its gondola.
The Locanda Art Deco is the only hotel using a gondola for guests, said Antonio Iannotta, who heads the city's gondola office. The city's upscale hotels typically use motorboats.
"If, hypothetically, each hotel employs a gondolier there's a risk: there can be one who dresses in red, another one in white, another who paints the gondola in yellow," Iannotta said.
While the regional court ruled the hotel could use its gondola for guests, it also said such private gondoliers must also meet professional requirements to ensure the safety of passengers. The ruling did not specify what kind of requirement.
In the meantime, Hai is at work on the canals.
But if passing the public exam is going to be required, Venice might lose its first woman gondolier.