Friday, January 14, 2011

A Gondolier and his Gondola

Maria beginning to take shape

For a Venetian gondolier getting a new gondola is a very special occasion, and one that usually happens once or maybe twice in a lifetime. Some might compare it to buying a new car, but for these seafaring men it is much more. With only a handful of squero or gondola boatyards left in Venice it can take almost a year to build one of these sleek vessels, and once the boat is ordered the waiting period to begin building it can last more than two years. My husband Roberto’s time came in July 2009 when the head artisan at the San Trovaso squero, one of the oldest and most characteristic boatyards in Venice, finally said “tocca a te—it’s your turn”.

The partially engraved Nardin Family Crest

In the ten months that followed that joyful day we observed the incredible skill and craftsmanship that go into building a gondola. From the varieties of wood (oak, walnut, cherry, larch, elm, linden and spruce) that were bent, shaped, curved and carved into 280 perfect pieces and puzzled together to form the structure of the gondola, to the seven coats of black paint that were applied by hand to the smooth wood surface, to the brass and iron ornaments that make each gondola traditional yet unique. We were witnessing a work of art in progress.  
Then one sunshine filled morning in May 2010, before Venice’s calle or alleyways began to buzz with their usual foot traffic, Roberto arrived at the squero.  He had left the house earlier than usual that morning and seemed as excited as he had been on our wedding day, or when our children were born. He had waited a long time for his new gondola and today was il varo or the launch.
When I joined Roberto a few hours later our guests, friends and family members had begun to arrive.  The bigoli in salsa—pasta with anchovy sauce; tramezzini—finger sandwiches; whole salamis to slice; fresh bread and pastries were lined up on the banquet table alongside dozens of bottles of wine and prosecco. Roberto had decided that, though it was before noon, this was the menu worthy of his colleagues’ appetites and the celebration. I greeted our guests, and placed a small bouquet of flowers on the gondola’s loveseat. Then I was directed to break a dangling bottle of prosecco tied to the back of the gondola. I blinked back tears of joy at seeing Maria glide elegantly into the water with my husband standing tall at the stern. She, they were bellissimi!
A varo is a rare occasion in Venice, and one never seen by those not fortunate enough to be at the right place at the right time. That is why I would like to share that moment with all of you here. Please take a couple of minutes to take a look at Maria in her finished form, and step inside the intimate world of a gondolier and his gondola. Our dear friend Alison Victoria made a special trip from Rome to celebrate with us, and film Christening of a New Gondola: Varo.

A dusty shot, but not yet finished!


  1. I loved looking at the photos while this was being built and enjoyed the whole story about the launch. One of these days I'll be in Venice again....

  2. fantastic! it is not usual to hear this kind of story! great post!! :-)

  3. The Maria is worthy of her namesake. Beautiful. I am still amazed at how these boats can be propelled and steered with the one oar.

  4. What a wonderful story. I loved the video too. I am visiting Venice in a few months, so maybe I will have a ride in this beautiful boat.

  5. Love the behind the scenes and the craft work involved.

  6. Thank you to Sheila and Italytutto blog for listing Italy to Los Angeles and Back as one of their top 10 Italian blogs of the week!

  7. Count me as another avid reader - anything to do with Venice gets my attention. My husband and I returned in October from our 4th trip to Italy, and the 5 days we spent in Venice were divine. Keep writing.
    Barb in Minnesota

  8. I am so gald that I found you. Venice is my favorite place and we have visited several times and stayed for a week on several occasions. The gondola is beautiful. Good luck...

    Adele in Pittsburgh, Pa.

  9. Dear Barb and nice to know how much you love Venice, and to "read" you here on my blog. Benvenute!

  10. The video gave me such a big lump in my throat. And, I realised I had read about this exact varo on Karen's blog!

    How proud Roberto and you must be. Auguri!

  11. What a memorable event, if only I had been able to be there like I was on your wedding day.

  12. Ciao Arturo...I wish you could have been here, too! You'll just have to make another trip (maybe with the boys) and see "Maria" up close...she's really beautiful!

    A presto,