Grit and Grazia: A Story of Venice, Voga, and a Few Unwavering Women

A documentary project of Living Venice e VIVA

La Barca

prua, caorlina

Overlooking the prua, or prow, of a caorlina rescued by the Associazione Arzanà.

Most of us would be amazed at the variety of boats in the Venetian fleet designed to be rowed alla veneta. The above photo is that of a caorlina, once used to transport fish and vegetables to the Rialto markets. The versatile sandolo is a stable, medium-sized boat that can hold one to four rowers, or two rowers and a load of merchandise. A smaller version is the mascareta: faster, less stable, but more agile; most often used in regate. The silhouette of the gondola is famous the world over, but its asymmetrical cousin, the pupparìn, was also used to shuttle passengers about the city, and is still used today in regate.

Although they differ enormously in type and style, Venetian lagoon craft share a number of common traits. Their draft (the amount of water needed to remain afloat) is minimal; in fact, the water often needs to be deeper to row a boat than to float it. And although there are metal components, all lagoon boats are of wooden construction and still built by hand, piece by piece by master artisans known as squerarioli. Those in oar and oarlock (or forcola) design and production are called remèri (in fact, every??regatante has his or her preferred remèr). Still others produce implements that outfit the gondola and its gondolier, from specialized furniture to metal components and brass ornamentation to the exotic rugs upon which the gondolier and his passengers stand.

arzana_04Some of the tools and materials these craftsmen use have been updated from the original, but many implements designed specifically for Venetian boat construction are still used today. Each type of boat has an established design, with the specific procedures, plans and materials for every component thoroughly documented in Venetian archives.

After the the private motorboat almost replaced the row boats in the late 1950s and into the 1960s, the number of squerarioli and remèri declined dramatically and indeed once almost disappeared. Even today it is not always possible to have a certain models constructed, and there is even talk of replacing boat models used for regattas (for which many today’s boats are constructed) with faster, sleeker, and less-costly manufactured boats of plastic.

The squeraioli and remèri have family names immediately recognizable to anyone even remotely familiar with boats in Venice. The name Tramontin is synonymous with centuries of boat construction; Pastor has been crafting oars and forcole for over thirty years. When the Serenissima was found sunk where she was moored at the Arsenale, it was Burano’s Amadi Agostino — in boat construction all his life and whose nameplate you’ll spot on many of the sandoli and mascarete you’ll see today — who rescued the 50-meter long, 50-year-old galley. At his own expense, he had it hauled to his dock on Burano, and only ten days, under his direction and with the help of Burano workmen and residents (Hai bisogno di una mano?) got her ship-shape, and just in time to lead the Regata Storica.

arzana_13There are also groups who are dedicated to rescuing, rebuilding, and conserving craft that are no longer being maintained or have already fallen into disuse. Arzanà is a cultural association established by a group of friends determined to conserve remnants the voga and fishing tradition of the lagoon, including many boats that are no longer being constructed. Theses boats are not only conserved, but are put back into regular use. The association operates out of the squero dei Servi, itself a historic squero of the Casal family, and the center of the boat and gondola building world throughout the 1800s, and where boats continued to built until 1990.

The exceptional element in these and other hidden aspects of Venetian culture that we will bring to light in Beyond the Gondola is the on-going, extraordinary effort exerted by many individuals to protect and maintain both the tradition of the voga and the boats it propels; an effort driven not by the tourist dollar, but by pure passion, pride, and a determination to maintain a Venice true to its lagoon traditions.


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