Venice’s squeri, where gondolas come to life
Even Venice as Milan, Rome and other Italian cities has had to adjust taxi fares to cope with the rising cost of doing business. The difference, however, is in the fact that here we’re not referring to the price of a car ride to or from Malpensa and Fiumicino airports, but rather to a gondola ride. Strangely enough, the two prices are almost the same: 90 Euros are asked in Milan to cover the distance from Malpensa airport to the city center, and 80 Euros is the rate set to enjoy a 30-minute ride around Venice’s charming canals and bridges.
There are some 450 authorized gondoliers distributed over the five hundred gondolas in the city, just a few if compared to the 10,000 boatmen who plied the waters of Venice at the time of Goldoni, but a good number considering that there are around 2500 taxis are in Milan. These facts show that in the end, the traffic along the Venetian canals has not changed substantially since the Renaissance, as has happened in other cities instead.
This is why Gondolas and Squeri are so important to Venice’s economy. The squeri are the famous workshops where gondolas are manufactured and undergo maintenance. Originally, these workshops were all located on the Grand Canal, just to make their overriding importance and centrality to the city’s needs, but nowadays only two of them still exist in the center of Venice: San Trovaso and Tramontin.
San Trovaso Squero is even legendary, as its existence is documented since Goldoni’s times, but the oldest is surely the Tramontin Squero, as the Tramontin family has been handing down the art since 1884 and has been the pioneer of the modernization of construction techniques, renewing methodologies used since the 1500s and 1600s.
The construction technique of gondolas is virtually unchanged since the days of Giovanni Tramontin, great- great-grandfather to Roberto, who said he was so skilled in his work that he made a bet with his student Alberto Mingaroni and fashioned a gondola in a single night.
Who knows if it was a legend or a real story, but certainly nowadays his grandchildren need to work for hundreds of hours to build a gondola in a workmanlike manner, as each one is a unique piece. Indeed, each gondolier has his own gondola and each boat is customized to its gondolier, to his weight and height – indeed, it is no coincidence that the weight of the iron bow varies according to the size of the gondolier and serves as a mass balancer. Also the steering position, the oar and the forcola where it rests are designed and manufactured considering the height and the arms of the gondolier. This need to customize gondolas is not an artistic habit, but rather responds to its peculiar navigation technique based on arm strength. This technique is very complex and relies on experience and direct knowledge of the routes, channels and pitfalls, however, quite different from any other traditional navigation mode.
Even today, gondolas are manufactured without design drawings but only relying on personal knowledge and the experience of shipwrights, their children and their students. Assuming that the average life of a gondola is about twenty years, to maintain the current fleet of five hundred vessels twenty to thirty gondolas are built each year, and this is precisely the work carried out by the last five Squeri in Venice: in addition to the already mentioned Tramontin in Ognissanti and Manin’s San Trovaso, the other Squeri are: Square Bonaldi in Ognissanti, in close proximity to Tramontin; Crea and Costantini – De Rossi in Giudecca.
These are the most recent, Costantini De Rossi was opened in 1985 by Corrado Costantini a.k.a. “Buranello,” his son Stefano and Corrado de Rossi. Crea is even more recent and owes its name to Gianfranco Vianello said precisely “il Crea,” winner of several historical regattas and skilful gondolier. It’s the most modern yard, where several apprentices work not only in the construction of the traditional gondolas, but also all the typical boats of the lagoon and was among the first manufacturers to introduce plywood in hulls.
Manin work cooperative squero di San Trovaso is probably the best known because of its central location on the Grand Canal and the antiquity of its site that dates back to the mid- 17th century. Since the late 1900s, the squero has been managed by Gastone Nardo and his son Ettore, shipwrights grown in the Tramontin workshop and heirs of the historical art of gondolas construction.
In Venice, there are also small repair shops, but no one other than the five cited here undertake the actual construction of gondolas, perhaps waiting for news, but especially more concrete orders by the small, but equally rich Venice in California, but that’s another story.