The Hidden Powers of The Forcola
By ERLA ZWINGLE
This sidebar is a supplement to Venice, Gondolas, and Black Magic
How can a single oar give orders to a 36-foot boat that weighs 350 kilos (772 pounds) and why does the gondola obey? The answer is the forcola (FOUR-koh-la), the gondola’s oarlock, which is characterized by a unique, serpentine shape and is made of nothing more than wood.
Each rowing position on each type of Venetian boat requires its own particular forcola, a device that was developed over centuries to be the most efficient for a rower who is always standing up and facing forward. To anyone accustomed to more typical rowboats—in which the rower sits facing the stern, pulling backward on a pair of oars—the Venetian arrangement will look odd, and perhaps seem inefficient. But this method of rowing, created centuries ago for navigating Venice’s lagoon, remains the least fatiguing to a person who, until the arrival of motorboats in the early 1960s, could easily have had to row for hours.
As for facing forward, all Venetian rowers (not just gondoliers) have always needed to see where they were going—in the lagoon, to avoid sandbanks; in the city, to avoid walls, boats, and other obstacles in Venice’s maze-like network of narrow canals.
In the beginning, the primordial forcolas were typically hacked from planks left over from the boat itself, often made of oak or elm; the spot where the oar rests—the curved opening (the morso, or “bite”) used to be crudely shaped and relatively large. Throughout the centuries, as the forcolas became more refined and complex, they never were formally designed, but instead were modified by endless experimentation by the makers themselves.
Today, the forcola has become regarded as an art form, but to rowers its beauty lies in its spectacular functionality. Both gondoliers and Venetian racers now commission forcolas made specifically for them based on their particular height and weight. (Rowing clubs, of course, can’t be so fussy, so they tend to have one-size-fits-all forcolas. Members adapt these as needed, adjusting the forcola’s position by temporarily fixing it into place with wooden wedges.)
The forcola for a gondola (as compared with other Venetian boats) offers a rower eight different points of contact for the oar, each devised for different maneuvers and different ways of making the boat go forward, backward, turn, or stop, according to the given situation. If it appears effortless to make a gondola do what you want, that is completely due to the forcola. Experts in physics would immediately understand why: This device is essentially a second-class lever, for which the point of resistance is the water.
The forcola might appear relatively simple, but first-time rowers quickly discover it is anything but. Even those with experience in the more common, backward method of rowing (often called “English style”) find their oar is continually jumping out of the forcola. It’s maddening to keep losing control of the boat as well as the oar, everything seemingly doing whatever it wants, but with practice, everything falls into place. The rower learns to press against the forcola on the forward stroke, then quickly turn the oar 90 degrees and slide it out of the water on the return stroke.
So why didn’t the Venetians lock in their boat’s oars the way rowboats elsewhere are made? To any local rower, the reasons are obvious. First, given the myriad maneuvers they have to make, often in a second, rowers want the morso left open so they can continually change the oar’s position, even taking it quickly out of the forcola altogether. Second, traveling Venice’s canals would be impossible with a fixed oar. (An example: when navigating a tight canal, gondola rowers don’t take big strokes; they move the boat forward by making tight little figure-eight motions with the oar. To watch this and other maneuvers in action, see the documentary short below: “The Unique Rowing Methods of The Venetian Gondola.”)
There are only four artisans in Venice who specialize in making forcolas, along with oars (the same goes for the number of gondola makers, although with a different set of artisans). This equipment is an investment. A basic forcola for a gondola will cost at least 1,000 euros, plus 20 per cent tax (a total of $1,421); more if you want designs carved onto it, let alone gilding with gold leaf, touches sometimes added by ambitious gondoliers wanting to dazzle potential passengers. But the cost pays off. A forcola could last forever, but if it’s given constant use, the oar will eventually wear away the morso; and, at some point, the morso’s curve will be too large to perform efficiently and it will be time for a new forcola.
Given how gorgeous a forcola carved out of walnut and other hardwoods can be, plenty of people now buy them as works of art (when fixed to a stand, a forcola looks great on a shelf or table). So, you can have a forcola, and enjoy it, without a boat. But if you have a boat without a forcola, it’s going to be hard to make it go anywhere.
Erla Zwingle, Contributing Editor, has written for dozens of magazines over the past 30 years, primarily National Geographic, to which she has contributed 25 articles as well as writing its Guide to Venice.
© 2023 Erla Zwingle, Contributing Editor. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.