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Squero di San Trovaso
The sign on the door reads “Vietato L’accesso.”
One of the two remaining boat yards is Venice
is closed to the public, but the chance opportunity,
shed new light on a old tradition.
TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHY
BY ADAM MARELLI
. . .
The sign on the door reads “Vietato L’accesso” One of the two remaining boatyards in Venice is closed to the public, but a chance opportunity shed new light on an old tradition. When polar explorer Ronald Amundsen reach the South Pole, the New York Times declared that everything in the world was now discovered. They could not have been more wrong. Discovery is much more than setting foot on an untouched piece of earth. Discovery is as much a personal journey as a global adventure. Each generation must see the world again, for themselves. Endless human curiosity keeps emergency rooms across the globe filled with early explorers who must know what lies inside an electrical socket. The shocking results should be an early warning sign that people are curious beings who will not rest until they feel electrified with their discoveries.
Five minutes from out apartment in Venice, there is an open yard, which is visible from across the canal. One evening over a handful of Aperol’s, the light of a workshop lit the spaces between the wooden walls. I thought it might be nice to find out what happened in this curious workshop. I sipped the last of my drink and headed across the bridge. I place of a company sign, was an Italian version of a “do not enter sign.” It was unclear what we could not enter, but like a big dog, they door was not interested in new friends. A few days later, after a chance encoutner with a book shop owner, I learned the door was for Squero di San Trovaso, one of the last two boat yards where they still make gondolas.
CULTURAL ICON OR TOURIST TRAP
. . .
Is a gondola a gimick reserved for tourists or is it a piece of cultural heritage, kept alive so that future generations will never forget that Venice was built on water? Everyone seems to have a different take, but whether they are loved or abhorred, gondolas still slide up and down the canals each day. There appears to be no shortage of men in striped shirts saying “gondola, gondola,” on every major bridge in Venice. They are outside of Hotel Bauer, tucked inside of Santa Croce, and definitely to be found along the Grand Canal where the water is chopped up by massive cruise ships.
On the back waters of Duorsoduro, Squero di San Trovaso is protected from the the rough water, heavy foot traffic, and prying eyes of any unscheduled visit. This is where gondolas are born and go to be repaired.
. . .
Disguised beneath a coat of black paint, gondolas are complex asumentrical boats, hand made from over two hundred individual pieces of wood, in seven different species. (some sources say they are made from eight species, but I was told seven…maybe my italian needs work) The black hulls are deceptively simple. The paint unifies the design into a single form.
At nine in the morning I arrived at the “do not enter sign.” Just inside, there was a gondola on the horses. It takes them about three weeks to get the boat ready for the water. The long time craftsman Fabio was painting the bow and installing the metal trim with brass screws. He has been in the shop since he was fourteen years old and enjoys every part of the process. When pressed on his favorite stage of building, he confesses the woodwork is the best.
The relationship of Zen and craftsmenship come up often. To those outside of the trades, the idea of building an object from scratch conjures ideas of relaxation, serenity and self satisfied bliss. There is nothing further from the truth. The first time I watched monks sweep a zendo, their rapid pace was not an exercise in peace. They work almost as if they are bothered by the task, though looks can be decieving.
Inside, many craftsmen do find peace in their work, but on the outside it never looks the way you would expect it. Zen is filled with countless stories of apprentices seeking out their master only to find, what they thought was a “careless looking beggar.” Much to their dissappointment, they leave. Their minds fell prey to the trap of expectation. Those who decide to stay realize how profoundly mistaken they were with first impressions. The best craftsment never have the fanciest tools or the latest gagets. They are not impressed by novelty and typical distrust anything that needs charging.
THE GIVING TREE
. . .
The Venetians have a particular fondness of trees. Ironic for a city of stone and water. The trees are all hidden. Venice sits on a pad of a few million logs driven into the silt. Every foundation in Venice is supported by a network of tree trunks, shaprened to a point. These trees distribute the weight of the buildings so the city does not crumble to the ground. Wood keeps Venice floating and moving through the water.
On a smaller scale, in order for a pile of boards to become a gondola, a complex set of templates must be decoded for each structural and deocrative element. If all the craftsmen were to disappear tomorrow, it would take historians years to dechipher this laungauge, which has been passed down through the generations. The workshop even feels like its kept in slight disarray to safe guard the secrets of the craft. A midnight burglar would only be met with hand tools, dust, and fragements of boats.
HONOR OVER REVERENCE
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People who understand the potential of wood build violins, castle doors, and boats. Those who do not understand wood, build furniture that goes together with heiroglyph sheets and a single allen key. Modern life is surrounded with material stupidity, concieved becuase it is cheap, fast, and does not require training an apprentice on anything more than an automated laminating machine. But to the craftsmen, each species of wood has its merits which are put to different uses. Based on the strength, flexibility, water reistance, weight, or carvability a gondola is the culimnation of one thousands years of collective knowledge. (woods like mahogany have a very fine grain can be craved with intricate patterns, while elm, which is incredibly strong, would chip out in a decorative carving due to its pronouced grain, so it is used for structral parts of the gondola instead).You might expect that with centuries of know-how, the craftsmen of Squero di San Trovaso would have huge egos. This is not the case. They are nothing like Academics and their hyphenated expressions, who often mistake complexity for intelligence. Most of the morning was spent in silence. Work does not need explination. As a photographer the most ideal set up is someone who is lost in their activity. It allows me to slip on a cloak of invisibility. All the while he worked away. Between the paint and the screws, he only looked up once. A french tourist knocked on the door, left slightly open for ventilation. He asked how much it would cost to buy a gondola? It was unclear if Fabio was annoyed or insulted, but the door was closed.
Fabio and I only spent a few minutes talking. He guided me through the anatomy of a gondola. It was the first time I saw one up close, in its raw state. He allowed me to inspect all the dark corners and peculaiar details like the half hammered nails or the mixture of woods. All the while he answer my questions, posed to him in my mediocre italian. The saving grace was that he understood that I used to work in construction, so I could understand the gondola as a carpenter.When I left, Fabio and Loronzo pushed a small boat into the canal. Whatever ailment caused it to come ashore was now fixed. A set of metal rollers eased the boat from the dry land to its rightful place. The boat wrestled with them, until it sat comfortably in the water. Then one man could easily spin it around, pat her backside and send her on her way. Boats are tempramental and since the dawn of time, man has been wise to respect them. They unlocked the horizon, but if we are not careful, they will sink beneath our feet.
There were many suprises in the squero. It mixes tradition and technology without loosing site of its roots. The moments of delicacy are offset by the thud of a wooden mallet. The craftsmen do not revere themselves, their work, or the task at hand. They possess an almost irrational commitment to their heritage and will spend a lifetime devoted to its nuances. Most of the conversation vibrates at a frequency too sublte for most of the world to even notice. But put yourself in their workshops, and the sidewalk will feel different, under your feet, when you leave.I would like to thank Lorenzo, Fabio and Cristina for an fantistic morning and I hope to see them all again, when I return to Venice in the Fall.
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