Venice is still full of incredible craftsmen (in an overall context of shrinking population) even if here in Venice it is difficult, very difficult to craft with hands, to set up a small business, to transport and to provide distribution.
When I met a maestro d’ascia (shipbuilder) here in town (Christof, who creates wooden boats with his own hands) at a dinner party chez a new friend Daniela Cometti who is a ‘boat dressmaker’ (until recently the couple was making boats at La Certosa island: now that business is over, and they started to build jurtas, desert tents), I was told: “The maestro will tell you who is the best in town to build oarlocks – the man is Paolo Brandolisio (oarlocks in Venetian are called forcole and are different from the normal ones due to the different kind of the local voga, the rowing tradition).
I already knew Paolo and after the chat I had with Christof, I moved on and decided to interview him. Two hours of conversation without a precise pattern: we hope that what follows will give you at its best the flavour of what we talked about. Take a cup of your best tea and start reading…
Last December I have been invited by Paolo at its 25th years birthday of “Succ. G. Carli”, where oarlocks and other wooden rowing utensils are produced and that he inherited from his master, the remer Giuseppe Carli, leaving intact the brand name (G. Carli): a form of respect for the person who preceded him in the business and taught him all that he currently knows. This is the story: when he was sixteen years old, Paolo got intrigued by nautical wood making, so he self-commissioned and built a forcola; then he brought it to the master remer (one of the main makers in his sector, coming from two generations of craftsmen who signed important pieces for great boats). Carli decided to hire him because the forcola was well done and, after only four years, he gave to Paolo the laboratory by nominating him as his sole heir allowing him to continue with this unique, antique business.
Currently, to have a forcola made by Paolo there is a waiting list: it is a smooth art and a complex business. Every piece is unique (as also are his oars) and it is signed and numbered: it has to be made in relation with the boat, in accordance with the weight of the user, for the kind of use
Paolo Brandolisio is also the person with whom I made my first rowing experience (it was at Punta della Dogana, on his boat ‘sandalo’, in a very troubled afternoon).
How many forcole do you produce each year? How many oars? And how many other wooden utensils? How much job you need for each one of them? Where and how do you choose the wood?
I have never been precise in counting my production. I could try to make a rough calculation. I never counted how many forcole and how many per type, for example tehe ones for gondolas. One year I did make some calculations and I discovered they were 30. When possible, people here try to restore the old pieces before asking for a new one. More recently, if I think it over, I did many more new pieces.
It takes me 3 days to make a new forcola, given that I already made the first cut – we call it sbozzatura in Italian – that needs one year, even two years to dry up: it depends on how the wood is dried. So I make an estimation of new pieces I will need and then I cut a number of logs, let’s say twenty, so I have a number of pieces already sbozzati (‘preworked’) in order to start the final process of making the forcola. How can I calculate the requests? I usually consider that I will be asked to make 10/15 forcole per year, so I make 20 ‘drafts’ and I consider to be safe. During the past years, for example, once I cut 90 pieces all together in a bigger workshop (a friend helped me), because I bought lots of wood. They lasted five years.
I mostly use walnut wood. I would love to use also cherry and pear types of wood but these are increasingly more rare because the trend now is to grow only small trees, and those are not suitable to be used for oarlocks or oars. Decades ago, domestic gardens hosted only big trees: I still cannot forget a pear tree more than 3 meters tall. I buy wood from a wholesale agent who imports it from the Eastern countries. The last tree was coming from Macedonia, he told me about those villages that are like deserts due to the past war. It is sad. Anyway, walnut trees with a diameter of 60 cm can be found only there. I do not need tall trees, even if 1.5 or 2 meters are enough. Also, I do not buy the best cuts: these go to the furniture industry and here we call it “trancia”.
How many remer are still left in downtown Venice?
We are 3 now and 4 if you count my former trained employee who decided to open his own workshop. Work is enough for all of us, only my former colleague will need some time to find his first clients. Gondolieri are lazy guys: they get used to a remer and then always get what they need from the same one And maybe they do not change him because he is close to their gondola slot (close to my workshop there are lots of gondolieri). Of course, I could think that also many gondolieri work with me because they like my style. And when you do work well, there is no competitor who will be able to steel your business. Some years ago, a wooden carpenter started his own business of oarlocks working with a pantograph…but clients are able to distinguish the difference…Anyway, I am very curious to see what happens with my former employee Piero, I want to see if he will manage because he is my first trainee trying to set up his own business. He is almost 30.
Is he young according to your experience? I mean…just comparing your story and his, he started at an older age than you.
Ciò (yes!), when I was 20 I was already paròne (owner of a workshop). But today the world goes differently….
Why here in Venice oarlocks are called forcole? I think Venetian is a totalizing language: if you decide not speak Venetian, you’re out from everything….It’s far beyond a social convention…Venetian is a manifesto and I think that rowing à la Venetian is an extension of this special nationality. Only here you row standing up facing the direction of the gondola…unlike what happens in the rest of the world! On sundays I quite often see parents and their young sons going with no engine, only equipped with rows, crossing the Giudecca Canal. They teach their children, I suppose.
The difference between a forcola and a normal oarlock is that the latter has only a U lock where the oar can lay while rowing, while the forcola can host the oar in different positions and its form derives from its function. My master, Mr Carli, was the first to put a forcola on a base as a fine art sculpture, giving to the form an added value that nobody of the previous masters had noted. Carli has been also the first one to send a 2 meters tall forcola at the Museum of Modern Art (New York). From that moment on, also the form of the forcola became an artistic piece and not only a functional utensil. The old remers, for example, used to throw the broken forcole in the stove. Sometime maybe they kept small pieces as models, solo queo, ‘somma… but only those could be placed in the workshop…Returning back to rowing, this typically Venetian way of living is getting lost. I was trained by my uncle but now children go to remiere (rowing schools) to learn because nobody rows anymore. Children will take rowing as tennis or soccer: a sport and not a tradition. Everything is coming to be pre-cooked, pre-formed. If in these days a Venetian child does not have the chance to go to a remiera, he will never go on a boat with oars. And going to learn at a remiera school means not going in the canals because the owners are scared that the pupils will destroy boats in the narrow turns. But if you do not learn the voga veneta in the canals, you will never know what it really means. And, beside the good job done by these schools at least in preserving part of the traditon, it is important to live the rowing everyday. Canals are like streets for other cities but here teenagers prefer to have engine boats. When gondolieri see me going to the Rialto market with my rowing boat, they say: you are pretty unique! Traditions as rowing are getting lost because people are not preserving them (somebody could even think that we are at this point because they are obsolete): for sure, I think that rowing is more ecological than going with a boat that is engine-powered, maybe with an old and polluting model (given that nobody here is controlling the oil emissions in the lagoon).
Toward San Marco, one of the best areas for rowing, it is impossible to resist because there are too many high waves caused by the high boats’ speed. As in other cities, speed limits have to be respected and it could be a good idea to find a formula for rowers (that will not put them in a ghetto) as in the case of bicycles in the cities with real streets. On the other hand, if this can’t be, it may be better to cancel entirely the possibility of rowing…
Some special traditions of Venice are still alive because they are a commercial success still today, otherwise they wuold have disappeared long ago ( by un tocco )! My job still resists thanks to the gondolieri. And they earn only from tourists.
How many other things or traditions have been disappeared?
Fishermen say that many fish varieties are gone and that the lagoon is not the same any more. At Punta della Dogana, for example, still 30 years ago you could find rombi (because the water was less polluted and the bottom was different). Now the lagoon is becoming as a sea piece and bottoms are deeper due to the digging of the Canale dei Petroli. In the past, here you could fish passarini (European flounder) with the lampare, now there are no more passarini. Together with fish, also culture changes. For example, the lagoon has been full of sea bass for a while. The reasons are limited: one could be that the lagoon is becoming more salty and similar to a see; the other one is that the extensive fish cultures at Monfalcone have been able to let this kind of fish proliferate also out of their reach. For whatever reason it happens, the surplus of sea basses is causing the death of lagoon squids that before were so abundant .
Already during the Venice Republic (Serenissima) there were very strict rules about fishing and working in the lagoon, that’s why we have such a common sentence as Palo fa Paludo (if you dig a hole where you wish, without respecting the rules, there is a high risk of creating a marsh). With the huge Mose project building up, who is taking into account the modifications it will cause to the streams? These will become an issue, maybe, over the next ten years when it will be too late to repair the damage…The same happened with the Calatrava bridge (suspect of scandals and crazy cost increases have been brought to court and the egg-shaped cable car for to seat people with reduced mobility is not working at all, note of the editor): nobody thought to control before building such a complicated device. The tragedy here is that we always choose the minor damage, but in the long term things are not going well (Venice actually has no major and government due to a vast corruption allegation, note of the editor).
Handicraft in Venice is not living a much better life: it got increasingly damaged by the scarce interest in conservation, scarse interest towards the future of our land. I do not want to be too arrogant to say that my job could be relevant for other peoples’ life, but we have to be more conscious that, once we lose our craftsmanships’ skills, we will be not able to get them back anymore. Yes, we may remember them but it will be like watching a movie, it is like an amarcord. It is not as living with them.
Do you have foreign clients?
Yes, also abroad there are gondolas and other Venetian rowing boats. Last years I sold rows to English customers. But to row with a Venetian style abroad does not make much sense: you need our canals to use that kind of boats and that way of rowing. We row standing face to the water because we need to see how deep the water is and we need to see where we are going, even if we have now the Briccole (the sticks signing the navigation path in order to avoid the shallows note of the editor). The gondola is the maximum evolution of our kind of rowing: the minimum effort for the maximum result, also thanks to the shape of the boat. Also, the way rows must be used has been originated by a precise goal. Yes, you can always use a gondola in a lake but the reason for which it has been shaped in such a peculiar way get’s lost and the navigation will be different. If you find a good teacher, starting to row is easy, just like skiing. But, if you like to be trained as a professional rower, this is another issue: you must be an athlete. Let me repeat: you have only to practice in canals, not in the open lagoon. Only if you survive the canals, you’ll be able to row (and not only to conduct a boat forward…). Rowing is culture. It is like walking in the streets of Venice, you know that you have always to take the right because of their narrow shape. If we loose this portion of culture, Venice will disappear because we will be not able to have the foreigners (Chinese, Indians, etc.) understand what they are missing.
As a matter of fact, many people say that Ruga Giuffa is like a Chinatown.. Do you agree with this (being the President of the local shops non profit association)?
No, there are only two Chinese bars. Yes, if a Chinese buys there, there is another person, a Venetian maybe, selling. And who sells is forced to do so because of very high rents (a minimum could be 3.000 euro per month: Chinese can afford it because they work 7 days a week and are happy with 1000 euro salary; we would not do it…).There is no sense at all to open a shop in downtown Venice and sell masks or glass necklaces: too many are doing the same! People have no imagination left, they are not able to invent something with their hands and try to sell it. They just sell things made by somebody else. The …best idea I’ve seen in town since a while is to find the cheapest article and sell it at a very expensive price…see how terrible it is!
Che oro che ti ‘sé forcole e remi (What precious you’re with your forcole and oars), they could say of me…! But, but…The artisan is making objects and tools and is also spending, day by day, his credibility and reputation, continuously. In these market condition, it is difficult to go on, I have to admit it, but at the same time I see people surrending too soon, at the first obstacle. Venice, to end, is not helping craftsmen: rules are crazy, Paolo my trainee took almost two years of filling papers here and there to obtain his workshop authorization. If I recall the times when I took over the workshop of my master…It has been like a Carnival dance (easy and nice – note of the editor) !
Santa Maria Formosa?
There maybe yes, there are more Chinese shops as for example in Calle Lunga. But this happens anytime in all the old cities, just see the case of Rialto. At the market the majority of fruit banks are owned by foreigners today since there are not so many clients anymore and many Italians sold the activity for almost nothing (less of 10.000 euro), and foreigners buy. Venice is shrinking and many workshops disappear also due to the strong competition of supermarkets. Almost the half of Rialto market slots are closed now whereas time ago owning one of these meant being wealthy. But, again, what happens here is what happens in many historical districts of other Italian cities.
How many oarswomen do you have among your clients? What do you think about the future of this job and what about the misogyny that the gondolieri seem to have?
I think I have 3 female but if you are oarswoman (or oarsman) only on Sundays, a forcola and a row can last you forever. The only ones who are consuming lots of forcole and rows are gondolieri. They are making the market. Yes, also forcole reparation exists, but this is a very small business if compared to the most first, the most lucrative one.
Will gondolieri allow women to join?
There is already one woman, one gondoliera. But currently the issue among the gondolieri is to preserve the job post for their sons by letting them come in. So, if you follow this line of thought, yes: they will let a woman (i.e a daughter) join. As far as I know, among the 400 existing gondolieri there is a portion in favour of women, a portion that is against and, among these ones, the position is caused by two reasons: it is a very exhausting job and – to be honest – often they also are misogynist. A friend of mine was also explaining to me that, indeed, there are also objective limits in having women join: the changing rooms are very promiscuous and small. If women join, this will lead to share such small spaces and to divide them in two parts. Finallt, having women join will require to change all the rules. Something is already changing, faster and faster: the traghettos (the gondolas taking people for 70 cents from one point to the other of canal Grande in six stations as San Marcuola, Giglio, Ca D’Oro, etc.…) have been given to the Gondolieri (previously they were managed by the local transport authority). If there will be only a few clients, this will mean that it will be abolishedsince nobody will be able to eat with that job. If and when it will happen, you will see mothers making strikes again gondolas because their children can’t reach easily their school…This is also very common in Venice. Fighting one against the other without catching each other’s mind,and finding a (surprising) balance.
Do you like the English magazine Gondola? I like it, it is published by the Associazione dei Bancali…
I’ve never seen it: do you know who is a Bancale? The boss of each Gondola daily schedule who works at the gondola stations. Their authority has been established by the mariegole, the ancient labour laws codebooks (sectorially divided) supervised by th Consiglio dei Dieci (the governing body until 1797). For example, to be entitled to be a remer, you would have to pass an exam and then always respect the rules written in your mariegola. With Napoleon, many of these books were stolen because of their golden cover. The State Archive still holds some copies. Another rule written in the mariegola is that there is an order to respect in the call of a gondola: if you’re at the train station, you can’t call a gondola in Rialto but you have to reach the closest ondola “parking”.
, Since I have been living here, I’ve never been in a gondola. I would imagine to feel a bit uncomfortable because I see it as too touristic. But I want to learn to row and so I visited a remiera, here in Castello, at San PietroAlso the Giudecca one is nice!
There you find many women, and there you can find are very good and calm spots to learn…
Your incredible workshop is in a very touristic area, around Fondamenta de L’Osmarino, in the middle of the walk between San Marco and Casteo Basso, the local name for the lower part of the Sestiere Castello. Can you work in such a crowded part of the city? What is your relation with tourists? I saw that you also make functional sculptures and wood jewels: is it a hobby or will it become a further market for you?
With jewels and sculptures I started just a few years ago, because by having also a trainee I could share the heavy job with him. So I experimented over a wide range of pieces, from rings to bracelets and yes, also sculptures (indeed, I started carving even before making this job). I was using leftovers from the forcole, with a hint of fantasy you’ve lots of pieces of wood to work. The rest of leftovers went straight into the stove, otherwise all my working space would have been filled with spare wood.
And let’s talk about tourists…The way they exploit the city is completely different from the past. They make as they’re at their home, they do not ask permission for anything, they are not curious, they do not want to discover but only to achieve in a serial impetus of a few hours. It has been teh case for over the past 10, 15 years. Today I sell much less to touriststhan I used to.. They only visit Venice in 48 hours, they do not speak English, they invade every single space….So I took the decision to block the door with a chain otherwise I will not have the time to work. This summer a guide asked me an appointment to come with two clients to see how a forcola is made from wood. When I was busy with these scheduled guests, others entered (with children, without asking permission) and started to wander all around. I almost went crazy, there are dangerous cutting and carving tools and the parents were not looking after their children at all. There is a total lack of education and I feel that tourism seriously worsened, all in all. This may be also linked to the worsening of offers. They sell Venice in a few hours as if we were in a supermarket and promise a Ferrari-like ride for 300 euros including lagoon fish meals (instead they eat South East Asian shrimps because here gamberi are gone…). Sometimes I have been asked also about how recent is Palazzo Ducale ….! With this kind of “bargains”, what people do not understand is that they are not saving money but wasting it! As a tourist, you feel you have won, but instead you’ve been defeated. If a gondola tour is costing you lots of money, with a person intermediating for you the same ride, it will be costing more than that.
Venice is losing inhabitants but, also, it is acquiring citizens of any nationality that move and settle here. In this sense, it is interesting to live a cultural melting pot – even if of small proportions. Which is your opinion on this? What would it mean to you to have a foreigner trainee? Since you also work for the association of shops in your area, how can you trace the changes in ownership in these years?
If you speak with other Venetians about this t’è viene da spararse (you want to commit suicide – note of the editor) but if you speak about this with not Venetian you can fully see that they love Venice more than its natives. This is good, in my opinion. But the Indian guy who bought the fruit shop in the street, poor him!, will never know the real Venice and it is not his fault; maybe his son will be able to do this. He will be able to integrate himself here. What makes us as we are (for good and for bad) is the fact that we have been born here (although many things we do are destroying Venice). The richer foreigners are more included in the city than the Indian guy, even if they will never appreciate Venice as it is, they will be able to discover only some niches. Everybody arrives here by dreaming to live here forever as a Venetian, but that’s the only experience left for us natives. A leftover of Venice. This makes me so sad because my city has been always full of foreigners: at the time of the Republic it has been as New York is now. Now what we feel are only some few surviving things which are still pulsing, although sometimes they do so in a distorted way.
Are you thinking about leaving the city?
No, I only plan to stay part-time here and part-time somewhere else. Especially when I was engaged with a Canadian girl. Venice is like a golden cage, she always told me: it is so cosy that it does seem a warm nest where the body and the soul can perfectly fit. But, after all, you remain trapped in it: To fully love the city you need to escape in order not to be annihilated.
I want to quote a sentence by Italian artists Zimmerfrei: do you want to have children for this country, I mean for Venice?
Yes; if I’ll be able to have children I hope to be able to pass them all that I told you now. I would give them all the parts of this life that I do not want to get lost.