They symbolise the romance and unique heritage of Venice, but the lagoon city's famed gondoliers are becoming known for drunken antics and could soon be forced to take drug and alcohol tests.
The prospect was raised yesterday after Venice council received a series of complaints about the boatmen's allegedly unruly behaviour. The issue was brought to a head by the recent "hazing" of an aspiring gondoliers' assistant, who was forced to take off his clothes and plunge naked into the Grand Canal to secure the job.
Video footage of the incident was posted on YouTube last week but later removed. The young man was hoping to become a "ganser" - a Venetian dialect word describing an assistant who pulls gondolas into shore with a grapple and helps tourists to clamber on and off. A group of reportedly drunken gondoliers made him jump into the water just off St Mark's Square. "Hazing" is a ritual of initiation usually carried out under the influence of alcohol.
City councillors said the gondoliers involved in the "despicable act" should immediately have their licences revoked.
"Gondoliers represent our city in the world and must therefore respect historical and traditional values, as well as human dignity," a group of councillors said in a statement.
Nicola Falconi, the president of the gondoliers' association, went a step further, calling for gondoliers to undergo drug and alcohol testing.
"Given that unruly behaviour is on the increase, I'm proposing tests, which would be conducted without warning," he told the news agency Ansa.
The proposal will be discussed at a meeting on Monday. Falconi said the tests should apply not just to gondoliers but other people who plied Venice's crowded canals, including the drivers of vaporetti water buses.