From Humble Origins to Venetian Icon: The Gondola Workshop Legacy

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Gondolas have been an integral part of life in Venice for a long time. How long exactly is a bit of a mystery, but they were first mentioned in a document from the 11th century! Even today, close to a millennium later, they are just as synonymous with the city as its countless bridges, canals and occasional floodings! Outside of Venice, however, you don’t really see these stunning boats anywhere else in the world, so it only makes sense that they are also MADE in Venice, right? More specifically, gondolas are built in so-called “Squeros”, a type of shipyard of which only FIVE still exist today.

The most famous of them all is known as the “Squero di San Trovaso”!

The “Squero di San Trovaso”, named after the nearby “San Trovaso” church, opened its doors back in the 17th century, also making it the OLDEST, still-existing Squero in all of Venice. In its hey-day, you could find gondola shipyards around seemingly every corner, along with an estimated 10.000 gondolas which are said to have been making the rounds in Venice around that time. After all, they were the most convenient way of getting around the “floating city” back then!

The San Trovaso shipyard immediately stands out among all the other buildings in Venice with an exterior that reminds one of a mountain hut. Actually, that is exactly what it is supposed to remind us of: The artisans of Squero di San Trovaso have their origins in the mountainous area of Belluno, 100km (62 miles) north of Venice, where these kinds of mountain huts were pretty common!

Nowadays, there are cheaper and more convenient options of getting around Venice, that’s for sure! However, there’s a good reason why gondolas are still popular with tourists and why some Squeros still manage to (literally) stay afloat nowadays: Obviously, they are the more romantic option, compared to a motorboat, but there’s also still a great amount of respect and appreciation to be found, among both locals and tourists, for the hard work and craftsmanship that goes into making a gondola!

Making just one these boats can take a few months or sometimes even a full year, with multiple artisans working on different parts of the boat: Carpenters, blacksmiths and goldsmiths all work together in order to build something that is not only functional, but also beautiful, and they do it all by hand!

Around 280 different pieces of wood of eight different kinds are used to make one of these gorgeous rowing boats: Elm, cherry, walnut, lime, mahogany, fir, oak and larch.

By the way, did you notice that Venetian gondolas are ALWAYS painted black? It’s actually been like this since the 16th century, and for good reason: Back then, a law was introduced that outright BANNED any other color than black! This law was introduced in an attempt to thwart competition between the nobles of Venice, who all tried to out-fancy one another with colorful gondolas.

The bottom of a gondola is actually made to be asymmetrical, which is done to create a nice balance that keeps the gondolier (the captain, basically) on the back of the boat instead of in the water! Some smaller details included with a Gondola include the “ferro” (literally “iron”) which is attached to the front of the boat for further balancing, or the “forcola”, which not only holds the oar securely in place but also allows for specific types of boat movements (braking, turning, etc.).

As you can see, a lot of attention to detail goes into making these gorgeous boats. Subsequently, learning how to make a gondola takes a long, long time… 10 years, to be exact! Unfortunately, the art of making a Gondola is close to extinct, with only a handful of artisans keeping this beautiful tradition alive.

On a more positive note, YOU can actually experience this almost-extinct art with your own two eyes.

Not only that, but you can also give your tastebuds a little treat while doing so! Located a mere 10m (33ft) away from the San Trovaso shipyard is a so-called “bàcaro”, which is basically a type of little bar which serves drinks and snacks to customers. At “Osteria Al Squero”, there is a good chance that the hard-working artisans of the Squero across the canal are working on something interesting, giving you a show while you are enjoying your food and drink. Speaking of which:

Please do us a favor and try “cicchetti”, the Venetian people’s favorite snack!

A cicchetto can be many things, but in short, it is a type of finger food that can be enjoyed while standing at a bar and enjoying a glass of wine. The most popular choice are “crostini”, small pieces of baguette with all sorts of delicious toppings added to them, like fish, bacon, eggs or mozzarella. They are not only fairly inexpensive and convenient to eat, they are also unique depending on which “bàcaro” you choose to visit, with every bar putting their own unique spin on these mouth-watering little snacks. Buon appetito!

Watching the boat-builders of “Squero di San Trovaso” work from across the canal is certainly an experience, but what if you want to get INSIDE the actual shipyard? 

Well… the squero is usually not open to the public, but at Unfold Travel, we can certainly arrange something for you: Our tour will bring you closer to the action than otherwise possible! Sounds interesting to you?

Then make sure to hop over to our tour page where we have a dedicated tour to visit the gondola workshop or contact us and don’t worry, those delicious cicchetti and a glass of Italian wine may very well be a part of the tour, even if snacks are not allowed inside the shipyard itself!

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