Of all the trademarks of Venice-- and there are many, from the gilded Basilica of San Marco to the melancholy Bridge of Sighs-- none is more ubiquitous than the gondola. The internationally acclaimed "American with the Venetian heart," Donna Leon, tells its fascinating story (The Washington Post). First used in medieval Venice as a deftly maneuverable getaway boat, the gondola evolved over the centuries into a floating pleasure palace, bedecked in silk, that facilitated the romantic escapades of the Venetian elite. Today, the gondola wears black-- a gleaming, elegant hue, and is manned by robust gondolieri in black-and-white-striped shirts and straw hats. A tourist favorite, the gondola has never ceased to be a part of authentic Venice. Each boat' s 280 pieces are carefully fashioned in a maestro' s workshop-- though Leon also recounts a tale of an American friend who attempted to make a gondola all on his own. The feat took five years and countless do-overs. But the gondola is a work of art well worth the labor. And once its arched prow pushes off from the dock, the single Venetian at its oar just might break out in a barcarole, a popular Italian boat song. The best of these songs, as timeless as the allure of the gondola itself, are compiled into an accompanying CD.