The gondola is undoubtedly a Venetian icon. Before you can enjoy a ride on the canals in Venice, more than 10 different local artisans are involved to create this elegant black boat. It all starts at a squero, or workshop, where the gondola is built. In this post, I will tell you briefly about the history of the gondola before I share my experience of visiting the Tramontin squero. It is run by the sisters Elena and Elisabetta Tramontin, the first female gondola yard owners in the world. They passionately initiated me in the production process of a gondola.
History of the gondola
Today, gondolas are mainly used for rides with tourists across the canals of the city, and in some cases for weddings and funerals. As they usually follow a predefined route, they are not the best option to go from one place to another (for better options see ‘A practical how-to guide on transportation in Venice’).
The first gondolas date from 1094. It was originally private transport for rich people. They decorated the gondolas sumptuously, often in the family colours (see also ‘These colourful poles are an underestimated landmark of Venice’), to impress their friends. In 1562, Doge Girolamo Priuli therefore enforced a new rule stating that all gondolas should be painted black. The only decoration which was still allowed with the felze, a private cabin, for privacy reasons. You can admire a gondola with a beautiful felze at Palazzo Ducale. It was created by the Tramontin squero, who was an official royal supplier during the Savoja period.
DID YOU KNOW? Domenico Tramontin invented the asymmetric shape of the gondola. The right side of the gondola, where the forcola stands, pushes the boat to the left while the broadest side on the left pushes to the right. The combination of both forces makes sure that the gondola follows a straight line in the water and made it possible for one person to steer it. Until then, gondolas had to be rowed by 2 gondoliers. He also widened the bottom and raised the freeboard with a larger curve to give the boat a more elegant form.
Gondola workshops or squeros
There used to be more than 40 squeros, workshops where gondolas and other wooden boats are built and maintained, in Venice. Most of them were located near Zattere and Fond. Nove, where the timber arrived by raft (more information in ‘9 typical Venetian details explained along Zattere’).
There are currently only 4 active squeros left in Venice: Tramontin and San Trovaso in Dorsoduro, Crea and Roberto Dei Rossi in Giudecca. I often looked at them from across the canal, hoping to catch a glimpse of the action. It always looks so secretive. Hence, I booked a gondola making tour with Luisella Romeo to really understand what’s happening inside. I was really excited to be allowed to enter the sanctuary, especially the Tramontin one which is run by 2 passionate women.
Many squeros were founded between 1700 and 1800 by young immigrants from the Dolomites. As they had a lot of experience of working with timber, their families sent them to Venice to build gondolas and boats. In the end, these young men settled in Venice and started a family.
DID YOU KNOW? The houses on the squeros often resemble wooden huts (tabià) from the mountains. This reminded the young men of home.
Squero Domenico Tramontin e Figli
The Tramontin squero was founded in 1884 by Domenico Tramontin, along the Rio dell’Avogaria in Dorsoduro. Originally, the Tramontin family worked together with the Casal family who came from Val di Zoldo in the Dolomites. When the families didn’t get along any more, the squero was divided in two with a wall in the middle. After more than 130 years, the Tramontin family business is now in the hands of the fifth generation.
Elena and Elisabetta Tramontin took over the squero last year, when their father Roberto Tramontin died unexpectedly after a short disease. Even though they weren’t involved in the business until then, they didn’t want the family tradition to end. They are now the first women in history to run a squero. As the gondolier world is still dominated by men, they are up to a real challenge. I do hope their girl power will be strong enough to survive in this tough environment.
Elena and Elisabetta already built one gondola with the help of Matteo Tamassia, who used to work with their father. When I visited, the gondola was waiting the final decoration, so I was lucky to be able to admire it. It was really stunning. It’s quite impressive how they managed to realize this in their first year, especially if you consider the complexity of building a gondola.
Production of a gondola
The entire process of building a gondola from scratch takes approx. 6 months. You need to count 2 months for the wooden construction, which is often done in winter, and 4 months for the painting and decoration, which is done in spring.
A gondola is made of more than 280 pieces of wood of 8 different kinds: elm (frame), oak (side), mahogany (top), pine (bottom), larch or Douglas fir (footrest), cherry, walnut (decoration) and linden (front and back). When the wood arrives from France, it has to dry for 2 to 3 years (1 cm per year) before it can be used. You can easily see these staples of wood lying on the squeros.
At the Tramontin squero, the building process still starts from the original frame (cantiere) which was created and used by Domenico Tramontin. The sides are made from one piece of wood, which implies that the wood has to be more than 11.1 meter, i.e. the length of the gondola. The wood is made wet and heated by fire to bend it in the right form. This is a very delicate exercise which has to be done quickly.
The supports at the front and the back of the gondola are in massive wood to strengthen the boat. The stern on which the gondolier stands is customized depending on his weight. The angle is steeper for heavier gondoliers to ensure the boat lies straight in the water.
DID YOU KNOW? According to a Venetian saying, the bride of a gondolier already knows at the wedding the weight of her husband during his entire career.
Once the gondola has been fitted with all the wooden parts and has its final shape, the bottom is added as a final step. To do this, the 500 kg heavy gondola has to be turned upside down. This is another delicate step as they don’t want to damage the boat.
Painting the gondola with 6 layers takes a long time, even though a large part of this is waiting for the paint to dry. The entire boat is painted black, with the exception of the bottom. The special product to protect it against algae is either green or red. You can often see this at the squeros when they are turned upside down for maintenance.
Decoration of a gondola
There is however much more to a gondola than what is done at a squero. It involves more than 10 different artisans before a gondolier can sail his gondola. All these professions are grouped in the El Felze association. Think about the people who make the forcole (remèri), wood carving (intagiadóri), iron parts such as fèro da próva (fravi), metal ornaments such as horses (fondidóri), gold leaves for the ornaments (battiloro and indoradóri), the cushions (tapessièri), … up to the clothes (sartóri), hats (baretèri) and shoes (caleghèri) of the gondolier.
The decoration depends on the taste and the budget of the gondolier. A price of a basic gondola starts from approx. 40,000 euros. This does not include any decoration or other elements which are not created at the squero, so the total price is much higher.
The wood carving for the decoration of the mirror (the upper parts of the prow) is done once the gondola is ready. It is done at the squero, but by carpenters, not by Elena or Elisabetta.
The ferro, which is at the front of the gondola, is created by a blacksmith. It is a common belief that its shape refers to the 6 sestieri of Venice. This is however incorrect, as the shape changed over time and there used to be 5 brackets in the past. At some point, gondolas even had 2 ferri as you can see on a drawing in the San Trovaso church. The goal of the ferro is to protect during collisions, to keep the gondola in balance and as decoration. If a gondola is excessively decorated, the ferro will usually also be engraved.
The forcola is the rowlock in which the gondolier puts his oar and is created by a remèr. It is made to measure for the gondolier, depending on his height. As it is a necessary element to row the gondola (similar to a car key), the gondolier will always take it with him and never leave it behind.
Gondolas don’t have any clearly visible logo as you have for instance on cars. The squeros do have their own mark but it’s rather delicate. The Tramontin mark for instance consists of 3 small scores and 2 larger ones. The one in the banner on top of this post, which clearly shows their name, is an exception. Trained eyes however can recognize which squero made a gondola simply by looking at the way it lies in the water.
Assuming the gondolier has his license (see my post ‘An insider’s story from the world of gondoliers in Venice’), he can now set off in his gondola and have it blessed. Every 50 days, he will return his gondola to the squero to remove the algae from the bottom. He will have to replace the bottom every 10 to 15 years and invest in an entirely new gondola after approx. 40 years.
If you also want to visit the Tramontin squero, you can book a gondola making tour with Luisella Romeo (See Venice). I’m sure you will be as awestruck as I was. I certainly recommend it for your next trip to Venice.
Unfortunately, the Tramontin squero has been severely damaged by the extreme acqua alta on November 12, 2019. If you want to help Elena and Elisabetta, you can support the restoration of the squero via this crowdfunding campaign.
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