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Raider of a Lost Art

9 minute read
GREG BURKE

When Thom Price arrived in Venice in 1996, he didn’t know much Italian. He did, however, know the word squero — the workshop in which gondolas are made — and searched the phone book for it.

He found absolutely nothing. Not even under “boats” was there any hint of gondolas. So he began wandering around the city. He eventually stumbled across the Squero San Trovaso, and with the help of a translator told the men working there that he had experience building wooden boats and that he’d like to learn how to make a gondola. The craftsmen informed this smart American kid that they didn’t have time for on-the-job training. “Their attitude was that if I had graduated from college, I obviously didn’t know how to work with my hands,” recalls Price with a laugh.

Price, now 31, had won a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship to spend a year learning how to make gondolas. The problem was that he couldn’t find anyone to teach him. Part of it was his own fault: he arrived in Venice in July, just before the locals take off on vacation for a month. So he did research on gondolas for a couple of months, and in September met up with one of the few remaining master gondola makers, Daniele Bonaldo, 69, a squerariolo who had been in the business since he left primary school. “I used to sweep the floors, pick up the bent nails and straighten them out so we could still use them,” says Bonaldo. “We didn’t throw them away like we do today.”

Bonaldo took Price on because he saw pictures of the boats Price made and, since he is in semi-retirement, didn’t mind taking the time to help an apprentice. “He liked the idea of teaching someone what he knows,” says Price. Though Bonaldo doesn’t speak English, the language barrier was not a major obstacle. “It was pretty obvious,” Price recalls. “Bonaldo would take a piece of wood and draw a line on it, and I knew I had to cut it there.” Price also knew his stuff; he had taken four years off from Berea College in Kentucky to build wooden boats in Maine. “I didn’t have to learn how to use a saw and a plane,” he says. “It was just a matter of teaching me the forms and some new techniques.”

Although you can see it only on close inspection, a gondola is actually asymmetrical, flatter on one side and more curved on the other. “I always say it’s because the gondola builders drink so much,” Price jokes, though he then explains that the shape is similar to that of an airplane wing, only on its side and in water. It’s all related to the way in which a gondola is powered — pushed forward with one oar by one person. The boat naturally veers right because of the asymmetry. But the gondolier rows from the right, which pushes the boat left. On bringing the oar back, he drags it a bit to compensate, thus keeping the boat straight. Centuries of refinement have made for a smooth ride and a good gondolier doesn’t exert any more effort pushing his 400-kg boat than he would walking.

After five years, Price, a native of North Carolina, has become a Venetian at heart. “It’s such a small area for so many tourists,” he says, shaking his head. “We have to defend ourselves.” He has found himself a defender of the gondola as well. “My goal is to help preserve the tradition, and this is the place to do it,” he says. “I could go back and make gondolas in the U.S., but it’s not as interesting.” Besides, who in America knows a real gondola from a plywood imitation? “In Las Vegas you can see some very fancy plastic canoes with electric motors on them that pass for gondolas,” he notes with disdain. The demand for gondolas is strong in the U.S. — they are a tourist draw in just about any city with a body of water — and he has sent two each to Austin, Boston and San Diego.

In Italy the demand for gondolas is strong, in part because the art of gondola construction is in crisis. Price points out that there are only five boatyards in Venice that still make gondolas, and that some do more maintenance work than construction. The average age of the six master squerarioli is about 60. And some don’t even have one apprentice learning the trade. “Young people in Italy want to make a lot of money and don’t want to get their hands dirty,” Price says. “But you don’t make a lot of money” making gondolas. High labor costs and as many as 10 years of training also make it uneconomical for a builder to take on an apprentice unless he already knows something about boat building.

Roberto Tramontin, 47, whose family has been making gondolas since 1884, knows something about apprentices. “I’ve had four of them in the last six years,” he says. “I just don’t think young people want to work today like they used to.” Tramontin, who has one new gondola under construction in his yard and another being restored, says he currently has orders for 37 boats. “We do two a year,” shrugs his father Nedis, who is still working even though he will turn 80 in September. “It’s not like the old days, when we had more skilled workers. We used to make as many as three boats a month back then.”

After his apprenticeship Price started his own business as a general woodworker. He also put up a website about gondolas, www.squero.com, and occasionally people would write and ask him to make one for them. He got a serious proposal from a man in Texas, and was on his way to becoming a squerariolo. It’s not hard to sell a gondola, Price says, it’s hard to find someone to make one for you. He returned to Bonaldo, and cut a deal with him for the use of his workshop and its strongback, the nearly 12-m frame around which a gondola is built. Now he finds his own clients, and in the last two years has built seven of the boats.

Several different woods are used in building a gondola; the hardest pieces to find are the oak planks for the sides, which need to run the entire 11.5-m length of the gondola. The builders go to the lumberyard and choose the trees as they come in. Oak is both strong and rot-resistant, and is also used on the bottom of the boat. Elm is employed in some sections because it’s strong and won’t split. The breasthooks, two big solid pieces at both ends of the boat, are made from basswood, since it’s easy to carve. The decks are cut from mahogany.

At one time in Venice, more than two centuries ago, the gondola was a kind of horse and buggy for every well-to-do family. Now it’s primarily for tourists. The basic shell — no seats, no brass ornaments, no extras — costs about $22,000. If you load it with everything, the price can run to about $36,000. A key element in any gondola is the forcola, which serves as an oar post but in fact is often a work of art. There are only three people left who carve forcole out of large pieces of walnut.

One of these craftsmen is Saverio Pastor, who makes both oars and forcole in his workshop near the old Arsenal. Pastor learned his craft from the last maestro in Venice. “What I like is grabbing those huge trunks and bringing the forcola out of them,” he says.

He had assistants in the past, but one left to open his own workshop and another to become a gondolier, which has become a very lucrative business. The official price for a ride is $60 for 50 minutes, but usually ends up closer to $75 for half an hour. “An artisan like myself gets paid with the satisfaction of doing something he likes, and doing it also in the way he likes,” Pastor notes philosophically. “But at least in Italy, this comes at a heavy price.”

Pastor, 42, figures that it takes about four years to learn how to make a forcola, and about 25 to learn it well. In addition to their very practical use on boats, the elbow-shaped forcole are classy wooden sculptures and Pastor has both Mick Jagger and architect I.M. Pei among his clients. He says the crisis in gondola making is only part of a larger problem. “There are other kinds of boats that people don’t even know how to make anymore,” he says, referring to craft like the peata and the batea con la coda di gambero (boat with the shrimp’s tail), both once used for transporting goods. “Those who knew how to make them closed down, and no one has replaced them.”

While making forcole was considered a humble craft as recently as 20 years ago, that’s no longer the case, since so few artisans know how to do it. Fortunately for the gondoliers, the forcola carvers are relatively young. One of Pastor’s colleagues, Paolo Brandolisio, is only 33. Brandolisio points out that not many people want to learn the skills that have shaped his life. That’s not necessarily bad for him. It means there’s plenty of business. “I could work even at night,” he says, pointing to a few dozen oars leaning against the wall that have been brought in for repairs. “As long as there are gondolas, I’ll be here.”

How long can gondola making survive? Daniele Bonaldo, who has made gondolas for a half-century, has little confidence in the talk from local officials about starting a school for squerarioli. The school has been just that, talk, for about 20 years. Besides, theory is one thing, but when it comes to making boats, practical experience is everything. “If you have passion and skill, you can do it,” he says. Bonaldo clearly sees those attributes in Price, and is proud of having helped the young American. “He does things well because he has a lot of patience,” Bonaldo says. “He’s the master.” Not yet, but he might be before long.

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