VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - The sleek black gondolas that whisper through Venice bear the hallmarks of a tiny but proud group of artisans striving to keep alive the traditional building methods for the floating city's most recognizable symbol.
Each steered by a lone gondolier in a striped shirt and straw hat, the slender luxury vehicles offer a romantic setting for a serene cruise and, not uncommonly, a proposal of marriage.
There were some 7,000 in Venice about 700 years ago, according to gondoliers' association Ente Gondola, but their use as everyday transport has been supplanted by modern boats. The remaining 433 are now primarily a tourist attraction.
At the Tramontin boatyard - known as a "squero" in Venetian dialect - gondola builder Roberto Tramontin explains why the family business founded by his great-grandfather in 1884 still makes the classic boat.
"It is like a woman, without too much makeup, in a black Armani gown, with just a diamond at her throat," he said.
It takes two months to build one from 280 pieces of various wood including lime, oak, mahogany, walnut, cherry, fir, larch and elm, all adding up to a price tag of about 38,000 euros ($51,900), Tramontin said.
The wood is treated for up to a year before it can be wrought into the slightly asymmetrical banana shape that allows a single gondolier to propel it in a straight line.
The gondola builders practice for years before starting to build boats to measure according to each gondolier's weight.
"In 1970 I started working and in 1994 I made my first gondola on my own," said Tramontin, leaning against a gleaming example which weighs 500 kg and is 11.1 meters long.
Tramontin says he builds gondolas 60 percent according to the old methods, but he uses some pieces of wood that have been cut by machine and a type of plywood for the boat's flat base.
Layers of black varnish are applied to the whole structure, but ornamentation has been limited since the city's ruling Doge decreed in the 1700s that gondolas had become too ornate.
The lavish "felze", small cabins on the deck, which had once shielded passengers from rain and prying eyes, were removed.
"We work in the old style. Everything is done by hand," said 48-year-old gondola builder Lorenzo Della Toffola, chiseling at a half-built gondola at San Trovaso squero, in Venice's Dorsoduro neighborhood, which produces one or two each year using century-old techniques.
The surviving distinctive features, such as the curved metal plate on the boat's prow and the carved wooden oarlock known as a "forcola", are the craft of a few remaining artisans.
"This work was once done by many dozens of people in different workshops around the city," said oar and oarlock-maker Saverio Pastor as he and his employee Pietro carved a hunk of walnut wood using a double-handed saw.
"In the past, everyone knew how to row, now few have any need for oars," said Pastor, shaking his head. "It is a thousand year-old culture that is being lost."
The artistry surrounding gondolas should be preserved regardless of this change in behavior, Venice Mayor Giorgio Orsoni said.
"The gondola is one of the symbols of the city and therefore it's clear we have to make all possible efforts to safeguard it and also maintain the profession, the techniques."
Pastor's oarlocks are also bought as ornaments for homes, costing up to 1,000 euros ($1,400) each plus tax.
Gondoliers must have a gondola to obtain a license, so many skirt the costs at the beginning of their careers by buying a second-hand boat, and later get a bank loan to buy a new one.
"It's like when a taxi driver buys a taxi," said Aldo Reato, head of gondoliers' association Ente Gondola.
Many gondoliers - who are predominantly men - inherit the trade from their fathers, and are keen to point out the close connection between their work and the life of the city.
"You need to transmit to the tourists the love you feel for Venice," said gondolier Stefano Bertaggio, 47.
Sometimes the gondolier does this job so well that tourists make the ultimate romantic gesture.
"I once had a couple from Mexico in the gondola along with the lady's parents," Bertaggio said. "He asked her to marry him and they were all so moved I had to ask a friend to join me helping them out of the boat at the end." ($1 = 0.7319 euros)
Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Paul Casciato and Pravin Char