Venice, Gondolas, and Black Magic
The gondola, like Venice, is composed almost entirely of secrets. And now—after a year of historic floods and plummeting tourism caused by the pandemic—the future of the gondola is in jeopardy. But Roberto Dei Rossi, one of the last master gondola makers, refuses to give up.
By ERLA ZWINGLE
Everyone has seen them—in movies, in paintings, in dreams—slinking like panthers through Venetian canals: The gondola, strangely regal, slightly ominous, an implausible boat in a highly implausible city.
Novelists, poets, artists, even people who don’t particularly care about boats have struggled to express its peculiar fascination. They’ve compared the gondola to a cradle, a coffin, a bird. Is it the bizarre shape? The obsidian blackness? Its extraordinary environment of floating palaces? Whatever the explanation, Venice without the gondola might as well be Venice without water.
Why, given Venice’s intricate environment of narrow canals and sharp corners, is such a long vessel the perfect boat for this city? And how can it possibly be that a person rowing a gondola carrying two passengers exerts no more energy than if he were just walking down the street?
The frame that a gondola is built on, called a cantier, is extremely precise. When one boatbuilder moved his to accommodate some workmen, “The next gondola he made wasn’t fit to be rowed,” said one gondolier.
While the design of a gondola (GON-do-lah) might seem to be based on fantasy and ornamentation, it is actually a work of logic, geometry, and physics. Each boat is entirely made by hand and to order, and almost invisibly adjusted according to the weight of the gondolier. The calculations governing its 280 components, refined over centuries, are so exact that if the builder isn’t sensitive to variations of millimeters in thicknesses, infinitesimal degrees of curvature, and grams of weight, your gondola might turn out to behave less like a weightless water lily and more like a dead musk ox.
If there is anyone who understands this required precision, it would be Roberto Dei Rossi.
“You told me you’d be starting a new gondola this morning,” I reminded him as I walked into his squero (SQUARE-oh), or boatyard. “I’ve already started,” he said with a smile, waving toward a stack of curved wooden staves lying on a table. “There it is.”
This conversation occurred in 2019, a few months before the start of the winter flooding season. This tidal phenomenon, simply called acqua alta (high water) is nothing unusual, and Venetians take it as a temporary if annoying part of life. But the flood that struck on the night of November 11-12, 2019, was on another order of magnitude. Driven by howling winds of up to 100 kph (62 mph), the water rose to 187 cm (6 feet) above mean sea level, a mere 3 inches below the highest ever recorded. Immediately dubbed the Acqua Granda (great water), it shattered, twisted, and destroyed. Roberto Dei Rossi’s boatyard was directly in the storm’s path, leaving an apocalyptic wasteland of devastated boats and wounded machinery.
Only 4 months later, a national lockdown to combat the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic killed Venice’s tourist industry, the basis of the entire city’s economy. Venice used to suffer from too many tourists, but 2020’s shortened season brought the reverse: 13 million fewer tourists than is the norm. Hotels, restaurants, bars, hardware stores, glass-blowers, motorboat taxi drivers, and myriad others are down as much as 70 percent of their normal incomes, and some are down to zero. One day this fall, normally a popular time to visit Venice, nine gondoliers were on duty at the “Molo” gondola station in front of the famous Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace), and in the course of the day, each had only one client.
As the pandemic continued, many gondoliers simply went home, and anyone who had ordered a new gondola from Roberto Dei Rossi called up to cancel it, leaving him without any of his expected income for 2020 and barely any for the foreseeable future. The flood may have reduced Roberto’s yard to rubble, damage he calculated at 53,000 euros ($62,500), but Covid-19 has threatened its very existence. “In all these years, I’ve never been without work,” Roberto told me in October 2020. “Almost nobody wanted to learn the trade, now this.”
There are only four craftsmen in Venice who are capable of making a gondola from start to finish, and all of these artisans are now in dire straits. Although the city has paid numerous claims for damages, the twin cataclysms of the flood and the pandemic have saddled the city with problems so enormous that the fate of a few gondola builders is unlikely to get much attention.
These circumstances raise a disturbing question: Will the gondola disappear, taking its secrets with it? This boat, and the city that made it famous, have both survived centuries of plagues, conflagrations, and numerous other disasters, so it would be foolish to make predictions. But if the gondola’s demise occurs, it’s worth visiting the work and history that has created this remarkable vessel, and made it such an iconic and peerless symbol of nautical grace and beauty.
A gondola is formed on a wooden frame, the cantier (cant-YARE), fixed in Dei Rossi’s shop by screws to the cement floor. The cantier gradually sprouts 66 carefully cut pieces of elm ribs, screwed to 33 straight pieces of oak, and its dimensions haven’t changed since the 18th century: 35.56 feet long (or 36.41 feet long if you include the ornate metal ferro on the bow), and 4.52-4.65 feet wide. This frame is worth its weight in rhodium, because without it—and without its being fixed to the floor exactly right—the results will be something of a gamble. “If you move the cantier even one centimeter,” one gondolier told me, “you can upset everything.” He mentioned one boatbuilder who had been forced to move his cantier only slightly to accommodate some temporary workmen. “The next gondola he made wasn’t fit to be rowed,” he said.
The tension in the air on launch day for a new boat is palpable. Not only will everybody be watching, everybody will have something to say—the nautical version of Monday-morning quarterbacking.
The priceless cantier matters so much because it contains the gondola’s two primordial secrets. First is the asymmetry of the hull—almost straight on the right or starboard side, 9 inches (or 23 cm) rounder on the left or port side. Being asymmetrical makes the boat uniquely maneuverable, able not only to slither around 90-degree corners but also to turn in any direction, even when the boat is barely moving. The cantier’s second secret is that it’s imperceptibly tilted a few centimeters to the right. Although the flat-bottomed boat appears to lie flat in the water, this tiny list makes it slide along the hull’s right edge as if it were on a rail.
Although the cantier in Roberto’s shop is the one he’s always used, each gondola comes out slightly different than the one he finished 3 months ago. And even small differences can have huge consequences. During one launch day, a new gondola (not Roberto’s) capsized in front of the thunderstruck friends and family of the suddenly not-proud new owner. Because of disasters like this, the tension in the air on launch day is palpable. Not only will everybody be watching, everybody will have something to say—the nautical version of Monday-morning quarterbacking.
Still, Roberto is used to all this; he even welcomes it. “That’s when you hear the criticisms. Of course, the owner’s happy, because he’s got a new boat. But on the basis of the comments you slowly learn to make corrections. You listen to what people say.”
Of Venice’s four gondola makers, only two work at this craft full-time, Roberto being one of them. In the course of a 40-year career, he says he has made some 300 gondolas, spending 6 days a week measuring, sawing, sanding, lifting, hammering, calculating, recalculating. Each gondola, which costs between 50,000 to 100,000 euros (or $59,000 to $118,000) can require 400 hours of work, or between one and two months. “I make four to five each year,” he said; “you can’t do more.”
Even at that somewhat merciless rate, Roberto’s waiting list was always long—before the crisis struck you’d have had to wait two to two-and-a-half years for your boat. At this point, he says, he’s beginning to feel tired, even though he’s only 57.
“The gondola used to last 25 to 30 years,” one gondolier told me. Now, because the growing number of motorboats are making Venice’s canals so choppy, a gondola is spent after 12 to 15 years.
Roberto was born on the nearby island of Burano in 1963, and by the time he was 12 years old he had begun to hang around the squero of San Trovaso in Venice, where his uncle, Corrado Costantini, was a master boatbuilder. “I started this work because I had the passion for wood and boats,” he told me. “My father was a fisherman. He wanted me to fish, but I liked boats. And I had the good fortune to start to build.”
Like Venice itself, gondolas evolved slowly. The earliest boats were simple, flat-bottomed vessels that were rowed, as they still are, by people standing up, facing forward. And they were everywhere. In 537 C.E., Roman consul Cassiodorus wrote to the Venetian maritime tribunes, adding this observation: “It seems that your boats are sliding on fields, because from far away one can’t distinguish the canals from the wetlands…and while one usually ties up animals to the doors of houses, you, with your houses of rushes and reeds, tie your boats.”
Early Renaissance paintings show gondola-like boats scattered throughout the canals. The first known description and plan for a gondola (measuring just 30 feet in length), dates from around 1550, when Teodoro de Nicolo’, a carpenter from the Venetian Arsenal, or shipyard, wrote a book entitled “Arte de far vaselli” (the craft of ship making). At the peak of Venice’s wealth and power, in the 1600s, an estimated 10,000 gondolas plied Venetian waters. Over the centuries, the gondola has lengthened by almost 6 feet, but widened by only an inch.
In 1884, a gondola maker named Domenico Tramontin brought the bow and stern higher above the water to form the now-familiar curved hull. This left almost half of the hull out of the water, which made the boat easily maneuverable by one rower rather than two. With that change, the modern gondola, and the gondolier-guided ride that all tourists know, was born.
Early each morning except Sunday and holidays, and every month except January, when he goes far away on vacation, Roberto boards his small motorboat and goes to work. In the foggy dark of a wintry dawn or in the breathless, shimmering summer sunrise, he travels across the lagoon from Burano, an island known for centuries of prowess in lace-making [See “Women Who Embroider the Air,” Erla Zwingle’s article about this rare tradition, which appeared in Craftsmanship Magazine in 2017]. After a 25-minute ride, Roberto arrives at his squero on the Giudecca, a long group of islands just across a channel from Venice proper. Arriving around 7:30, he turns on the radio (always set to station “Anni 80,” commercial-free oldies). At 8:00 p.m. he might still be there, maybe working, or just sweeping up, then he heads home. A pause for dinner, then he starts on the paperwork (bills, orders, contracts) until 11:00.
During one of my visits, I find Roberto tightening a 2-foot vise to the bow of the overturned skeleton and another to the stern. This, it turns out, is a crucial moment. “The most difficult parts are the stern and the bow,” Roberto says, “because they give the line. Up to that point it just seems like a boat.” This is when Roberto is “personalizing” the gondola to fit its gondolier. [To see some of these steps in sequence, please visit our photo gallery, “Building a Gondola.”]
So how do you personalize an entire boat? You adjust the curve of the hull. For a gondola to glide as it should, it must always remain flat in the water. To do this, a gondola maker counterbalances the rower’s weight in the stern by adjusting the height of the bow. “If a person spends 50,000 euros for a boat,” Roberto says with a laugh, “you ought to make it for him!”
Over the past 60 years, the increase in Venice’s motorboat traffic has forced the gondola to adapt yet again. The old silhouette, only modestly curved, was beautifully adapted to the city’s still-calm waters. But while there are many small, internal canals where waves are not a problem, the Grand Canal is getting increasingly agitated as the number of motorboat-taxis increases. At this point, the open water of the basin of San Marco resembles Cape Horn.
Today, the distinctive curves of the gondola (Roberto refers to the shape as “banana’d”) have been accentuated to help the boat negotiate these waves without exhausting the gondolier; they also keep passengers from getting drenched in choppy stretches. But these boats aren’t designed to run rapids. “The gondola used to last 25 to 30 years,” a gondolier who is based near Palazzo Ducale, where waves are at their worst, told me. “Now after 12 to 15 years, it’s finished. The screws all work their way out.”
Although Roberto still makes gondolas in the traditional way, his methods include one important exception. Instead of using planks of oak, long the tradition and his lifelong preference, Roberto now uses marine plywood. This material might sound like a cheesy substitute for the beauty and sturdiness of oak, but the fibrous composite actually has several advantages. Wide sheets of plywood, which are attached to the frame with screws and impermeable glue, create fewer seams that can open up, which cuts down on maintenance and simplifies repairs. Plywood is also lighter and less costly than solid oak planks, and significantly easier to bend. Shaping solid planks can take months; plywood can be cut and fitted in a few weeks.
Still, though, the turn to plywood, which Roberto made in 1994, was not entirely his choice; it was somewhat forced upon him by the wood itself. “Everything has changed,” he once told me. “Years ago the wood was wood. Today, the trees grow too fast, so there isn’t the fiber that the older trees had. It used to take one hundred years for a tree to grow—now they cut it after ten. And the lumber is dried in ovens, not left to season slowly.”
“There isn’t a culture to support artisanal activities” in Venice, says Maurizio Baratello, a former city councilor. “There isn’t the political will to nurture the artisan.”
One drawback to working in a squero, I soon discovered, is that people like to hang out there. Men wander through without much reason, ready to schmooze, enjoying the undeniably appealing atmosphere common to busy workshops full of tools and the aroma of wood and varnish. Some of them had business to discuss, some didn’t. Either way, Roberto had to stop to talk, often laughing and sometimes even breaking out some wine. But interruptions can eventually get on his nerves.
“This is a work you can only do if you’re tranquil,” he said, exasperated, on one especially interrupted morning. Whenever he did something intriguing, I of course wanted to ask about it, but knowing that any error wouldn’t be discovered until this costly boat goes into the water inspired extreme silence. Even the smallest error, invisible to you and me, will be immediately felt by the gondolier. You can row the boat, but the gondola won’t respond easily or gracefully. The worst mishap is when the boat lists to the left instead of the right, a flaw that makes the gondola tiring and irritating to row. And there is no way this can be corrected.
After nearly two months of work, the base coat of impermeable transparent epoxy resin, a coat of black primer, and between four and eight coats of gleaming black enamel paint have been applied, and the lustrous new gondola is finished. The work of assorted other artisans is also now done: The woodcarver has sculpted garlands, horses, or seashells; the upholsterer has made the gondola’s signature red or black cushions, covered in plastic or cotton damask and trimmed them with pompom-like fringe; the bow’s ferro and the smaller, curly one atop the stern have been forged and screwed into place. The new oars are also ready, along with the forcola—the gondola’s distinctive oarlock, which can stand up to 2 feet in length, supporting the oar in its signature sequence of almost feminine curves. The gondola is finally ready to take to the water. It’s party time.
Launching festivities follow a traditional pattern. The new owner has invited his friends and the priest has been summoned for the blessing. A lady has been chosen to smash the ceremonial bottle of prosecco on the stern, plentiful food and drinks have been loaded onto tables, and the late-morning May sunshine is postcard-perfect. If Roberto is nervous, he isn’t showing it. [For a glimpse of a boat inauguration, Venetian style, see our short video, “A New Gondola is Welcomed into Venetian Waters.”]
After the ceremony, a winch lifts the gondola, carries it over the water, and gently lowers the boat until it floats. Until recently, the new vessel would slide slowly down a ramp, the bow making its first tiny contact with the water as if it were a kiss. It was more than tradition, it was poetry. And Roberto always used to launch new boats this way, from his ramp, until the marina next door blocked it with a permanent walkway; no more poetry.
But one tradition still holds: The builder, not the owner, is the first to row the new gondola. To cheers, Roberto mounts the stern, takes the oar, and makes the first strokes to ease the boat out of the winch. He rows the length of the enclosed marina, rows back, then turns the gondola into a sharp rightward spin as he deliberately makes it rock from side to side. He already knows its responsiveness when going in a straight line, now he wants to discover its quickness in righting itself. He’s smiling as he returns to scattered applause. [To watch a gondola put through its maneuvers, and to learn about the forcola that makes this possible, see our video and its sidebar, “The Hidden Powers of the Forcola.”]
The gondolier now steps aboard, and the party rolls on, but Roberto has already left the celebration and is back inside, picking up where he left off on his next gondola.
When speaking of the days and years ahead, Roberto is uneasy. “I don’t see a great future,” he says. As is the case with many crafts, he struggles to attract apprentices. “Progress is what ruins us,” he says. We were sitting in his office on a Saturday morning, when work tends to slow down and he can stop to talk. “People want to go to university, they don’t want to do this. It’s really pretty fatiguing work, and we don’t have schools for this. They do little internships that are too short. What do you learn in ten days?”
And anyone drawn to boatbuilding these days generally comes to the craft much older than apprentices in the past. “If you start young, you learn quicker. We used to start at 13,” Roberto says. “If you start at a certain age—25 years old—after you finish school, it’s really harder for you to learn.” Roberto points out that no one is coming after him, with the possible exception of his son-in-law. “He’s done three [gondolas] with me so far,” Roberto says. His hopes for this young man were unmistakable. I always noticed how much attention Roberto gave him—explaining, demonstrating, watching, correcting. “He has really just started,” Roberto told me. “He promises well, but you need more time.”
At the moment, though, apprentices aren’t what’s needed, but clients. Like any of the hundreds of businesses or crafts in Venice that depend on tourists, gondola-building is in a state of suspended animation, awaiting the return of enough visitors to make gondoliers feel confident enough about the future that they’ll want a new gondola. Right now, gondola stations are rationing their work: at one usually busy station, the gondoliers are working on rotation, one day on and five days at home. But Roberto refuses to give up. Purely on speculation, he started building a new gondola and three other new boats. Meanwhile he was scraping by, like the other gondola-makers, doing repairs of any boat, gondola or not, that he could get in his yard.
In the meantime, although $20 million euros in emergency aid were given to Venice by the national government two weeks after the flood, the city was slow to distribute the money. By now, though, 2,153 businesses have received aid, and official projections are that by the end of November, 2020—a year after the disaster—a full 80 percent of the applications for aid will have been resolved.
These contributions, welcome as they are, did not come easily. The application process was time-consuming and sometimes complicated, and a limit of 20,000 euros (or $23,700) was imposed in most cases (although some churches received as much as 30,000 euros). In another frustration for distressed Venetians, the city didn’t issue any aid in advance; instead, it only reimbursed for expenses already paid—a steep challenge for shopkeepers with rapidly-emptying pockets.
And the terms have not been particularly generous. Roberto made a claim of 53,000 euros ($62,698) covering some materials, his workers’ salaries and damaged machinery, but there was no reimbursement for his valuable trove of seasoned wood, some of which was either destroyed by the splintering and smashing typhoon, or simply floated away. “They paid only for what I bought after the aqua alta—they think you shouldn’t have an inventory,” Roberto said with a bemused look. By October, Roberto had received 10,000 euros to replace machinery, but his second request, for 20,000 euros, is still pending.
“I had to do the work at my own expense,” he says—that is, pay the workers himself. Actually, he didn’t have to do the work himself, but an extraordinary rule stipulated that the fund would cover the salaries only of outside contractors, not his own workmen.
To those who believe that a government entity in Italy ought to be eager to help its legendary artisans survive this year’s extraordinary pair of crises, Maurizio Baratello does not offer encouraging thoughts. Baratello served as a city councilor for 17 years (but not currently), and he told me bluntly that in Venice, “There isn’t a culture to support artisanal activities. There isn’t the political will to nurture the artisan.” What about the gondola’s prospects? “It’s likely that it will continue,” Baratello said, “but it will be a struggle.” And Roberto’s perspective? “Without gondolas,” he says, “Venice will die.”
Given how exceptional today’s challenges are in Venice, it would be easy to write the gondola’s epitaph. But after living here for 25 years, I can say that it’s not wise to make predictions about anything in the so-called most beautiful city in the world, because in the course of its 1,400 years so many things have happened here that would have been impossible to predict. In what might be an omen, in the fall of 2020, Roberto finally got an order for a new gondola. I didn’t need to ask how he felt—it was enough to see that something of his old smile had finally begun to return.
Roberto’s moment of good fortune reminds me of the old Italian saying: Volere e’ potere, “to want is to be able.” If this proverb holds, wooden gondolas made entirely by hand will continue to glide through Venice’s wilderness of canals for centuries to come, appearing and disappearing like phantoms.