THE MAKING OF A GONDOLA

The art of gondola making, one of the most ancient Venetian traditions, is disappearing. Only a couple of 'squeri', that is dockyards, are still extant. Nowadays few gondolas are made and they are not often manufactured according to tradition but using a prefabricated counter mould. Being the gondola the only asymmetric boat, a lot of difficulties are met while making one, they can be overcome only by craftsmen who know deeply this ancient tradition, rich with terms which are different from the ones used by traditional boat builders.

A gondola is 10.85 mt long and 1.38 mt to 1.42 wide. She weighs about 350 kilos and is made up of 280 wooden pieces.

The first phase in the making of a gondola is preparing the material which is carried out long before its very construction. The 'maestro d'ascia' that is the senior wooden carpenter, personally chooses the timber made up with trunks, with bark, from eight different types of wood: fir, cherry, larch, mahogany, walnut, elm, oak, lime. Once in the dockyard, the trunks are cut into boards of different thickness and are laid to dry for about one year.

When the wood is properly seasoned the second phase starts,that is the making of the gondola skeleton using the elm which, being elastic, can absorb bumps. Out of 40 mm - thick boards, 67 'sank˛ni' are made; they are segments which make up the bony framework of the gondola and are joined to one another in twos by 25 'piane', that is structures made of oak, a notoriously hard and strong wood. The second phase is over after three 'maistre' (prow, stern, half boat ones) are made; they are transversal elements which support the construction in the same way as the 'aste' (prow and stern ones), that are terminal pieces positioned in a nearly vertical way; the 'feri' (irons) will be fixed on them afterwards. 

The third phase is the laying of the 'sŔrci', that is the sides of the gondola; they are worked out of long (up to 11 metres) boards which get curved through water and fire.

The gondola outline can be perceived by now and the next steps are represented by the making of the further structural elements which make her up, such as: 5 'trasti' which join the boat sides together, they are made of cherry and walnut; the 'fi¨boni' that is prow and stern covers, all made of lime except for the stern left-hand 'fi¨bon' where the gondolier stands; the 'nomboli', fir boards 15-mms thick, laid under the sides; the 'kol˛mbe' and the 'sÓndoli', the boards making up the hull: the former are found at the ends and do not get into the water, the latter are set among them.

Now the boat gets planed and smoothed out so that she can pass to the next phase: impermeabilization, which consist in filling up with oakum the clefts existing among the various pieces so far assembled and on which very hot pitch is dropped. Next, the pitch gets burned to make it hard, then the exceeding pitch is removed.

Now the last elements are arranged: the 'mase', long and thin elm stripes set on the external sides with the function of fender, and the 'solarai', a series of four larch boards on which the gondolier stands while rowing.

Painting is the next phase: after a first very mild coat of paint, embellishments such as the 'filÚti' are inserted; they are thin wooden stripes framing the 'fiub˛ni' and the 'sentoline', small wooden strings 20-mms thick found on the prow and stern tops. Other four coats of paint follow, after paper rubbing each time. The sixth coat is the final one.

The next operation regards the bottom of the hull: after capsizing the boat, the oakum previously set in the hull clefts gets burned, the holes made by the nails get puttied and the antivegetative is laid.

Now the gondola is finished but looks bare, it's time for the 'fÚri' to be fixed, and for her to be furnished with a 'parecio' and to be supplied with oar and 'forcola', that is the poppet. The 'fero da prova', that is the prow iron, has undergonechanges during the centuries. According to popular tradition, its higher part represents the doge's horn, that is the famous hat worn by the doges, the six front teeth stand for Venice 'sestieri' (i.e. six quarters) and the one facing the boat, the seventh, for the Giudecca, one of the many city isles. The S-sharped iron mirrors the course of the Grand Canal, Venice main waterway.

The 'parecio' is made up of: a two-seat divan at the feet of the rowing stand, a couple of stools to sit other passengers, the 'cavai', that is horses, brass finishings inserted in the higher parts of the sides for aesthetic purposes, a 'toleta a spigolo', a small trapezoid door closing the prow closet and which can either be inlaid or painted. The 'parecio' is completed by a rug laid along the hull and the 'canon' a sort of brass vase which can host a 'farÓl' that is a lantern, nowadays powered by an electric battery.

The gondoier uses an oar and a 'forcola' to move the gondola. A 'remer' is a craftsman specialized in making these fundamental elements. The former is made with well-seasoned knobless beech, it's obtained by filling the pole with a tapered  (thinned) stripe on its lower end to proportionate the gondolier's efforts. The 'forcola' is the oar support; it is made out of one piece of walnut briar and can really be considered a sculpture, it appears as an arm folded on its elbow, nearly at a right angle, raised to show the 'morso', that is the small fork on which the oar rests.