Amazingly, despite two trips to Venice in my lifetime, I have never ridden in a gondola. This is something I will have to remedy after my latest read.
Laura Morelli’s The Gondola Maker takes us to 16th century Venice and the world of its craftsmen and water workers. Luca Vianello, who comes from a family of gondola makers, is forced to flee his home after a family quarrel and accident, and soon finds himself working as a boatman for a painter. Luca becomes entranced by a woman he sees in one of his master’s paintings, and while she is well out of his class, tries to find ways to meet her.
Morelli obviously has a great deal of knowledge about this time in Venice and the daily life of artisans like Luca. She reveals fascinating detail about the process of gondola making, as well as other crafts, while giving us a window into Venetian life; especially that of the often unscrupulous boatmen!
While the novel starts in a (literal) blaze when a gondola is deliberately set on fire to punish a boatman who has earned the disapproval of the city’s rulers, I found the following few chapters slower than I would have liked. Morelli becomes a little bogged down in the detail and not much happens until Chapter 5. But if you can persevere past this point, you will be part of a gently flowing story that takes us from teeming ferry stations filled with crates of chickens, to the palaces of the wealthy, and of course the canals – those highways upon which the boatmen ply their trade.
Venice is a popular location for many fiction writers, and there is much we can learn about the city from its novels. So let’s take a look at what parts of Venice we can explore with The Gondola Maker by our side.
Base yourself in Cannaregio
“The oarmaker’s shop sits on a high embankment above the Sacca della Misericordia, the basin on the north side of Cannaregio, which affords an expansive view onto the canal and beyond to the island of Murano… These apprentices have the pleasure of watching boats pass while they work, and even glimpse naval ships in the distance headed to Corfu and Cyprus.” (Loc 387)
Luca’s family squero – or boatyard – is in Cannaregio, the most northern of Venice’s six historic districts. Traditionally a working class and manufacturing area, today, it maintains its working-class nature and is a welcome respite from the more tourist-driven areas of the city. Many feel Cannaregio is one of Venice’s ‘hidden gems’, allowing visitors to see how ordinary Venetians live, while still providing bars and restaurants aplenty. And in less than half an hour, you’ll be able to walk to San Marco. These comments on Trip Advisor are typical of those who say they have discovered the “real Venice”.
“A walk through Cannaregio enables visitors to see and sense another aspect of Venice, away from the the tourist trail. The whole atmosphere of the area is tranquil and seemingly locked away in its own world.”
“Cannaregio as a whole has an authentic Venetian atmosphere and the canals are “living” waterways, bustling with commercial traffic all day long. At night it is quieter but with some great restaurants and a peaceful feel to the evenings.”
“Had an apartment for 6 nights in Cannaregio, right on a quiet canal. Wonderful area, quiet, with great restaurants and cafes, beautiful churches, and no cruise ship crowds.”
And this article in the Guardian is glowing with praise for Cannaregio.
You can even stay in a former squero…
“In spite of its renown, the Squero Vianello, our family boatyard, is little more than a haphazard conglomeration of buildings surrounding a boat ramp. Its three structures – the workshop, the storehouse, and our home – have been standing longer than anyone remembers.” (Loc 237)
Venice Squero – Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
To really put you in The Gondola Maker mood, why not stay in a former squero when you are in Venice. Allo Squero is a bed and breakfast in Cannaregio, with a garden which was a former shipyard. There’s no reason not to pretend you are staying in Luca’s family squero. We’re allowed those sorts of flights of fancy at Packabook!
Allo Squero gets some great reviews.
Wander along the Misericordia
“I decide to travel the quayside of the Misericordia canal, observing the variety of boats docked there as I walk: rowboats covered with tarps, several plainly outfitted gondolas, and many rafts.” (Loc 457)”
The Fondamenta Misericordia, is the street running alongside the Misericordia canal, and it’s a fabulous spot for small restaurants and bars as well as carpenters, boat repairers and sculptors.
A favourite restaurant for many is the Trattoria Misericordia, especially if you are a lover of seafood. Take a seat, enjoy the meal, watch the traffic on the canal and think back to Luca’s own walk along this little piece of Venice.
Admire the ceiling in the The Church of Sant’Alvise
“I know I am close when I reach the church of Sant’Alvise and begin to hear the ringing sound of hammering on metal. Members of the blacksmith’s guild, including the family of Annalisa Bonfante, cluster in the streets surrounding the squat old church.” (Loc 421)
This is the church near where Luca’s betrothed, Annalisa, lives with her family and their blacksmith foundry. And it may be a “squat old church” (even in Luca’s time), but it has a ceiling that attracts people from all over the world as well as three paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo a prolific, and highly successful 18th century painter and craftsman.
Visit the site of the world’s first Jewish ghetto
“I scan the room for someone wearing the kind of red hat that Jews are required by law to wear in order to identify themselves, but I do not see one. I wonder why there is a Jew out at this hour at all and can only guess that his status must be special enough to allow him dispensation from the curfew that requires Jews to be in their homes inside the ghetto after nightfall. I imagine their dark eyes peering out from behind iron gates in their neighborhood in Cannaregio, not far from where I was born.” (Loc 2238)
Like so many other places in Europe at the time, Jews in Venice suffered from anti-semitism which saw their movements, work and dress regulated. In 1516 the rulers of Venice decided to confine Jews to a particular area, creating the world’s first ghetto. Residents were only allowed to leave the ghetto during the day, and were locked in at night. Today the ghetto remains a centre of Jewish culture, education and worship.
It is well worth a visit to the Museo Ebraico where you can buy a ticket for a guided tour of three of the five synagogues (very difficult to find on your own), the best way to fully understand the history of this tiny and unique part of Venice. After the tour, wander around the antique shops, bakeries and cafes and enjoy one of the most tranquil areas of the city.
Read more about what visitors think here.
But what about the gondolas?
“Beyond, a cluster of mooring posts painted with red and black spirals stands just off the ramp in the water, marking the entrance to the squero. In the summer, we take frequent leave of our work to walk down the ramp and splash our faces with cool canal water.” (Loc 270)
So far we have not moved from Cannaregio, there is so much to see there. But we will have to move out of this district to Dorsoduro if we are going to find the two remaining working squeri in central Venice where you can see gondola makers at work.
Squero San Trovaso – While there are no formal tours of this squero, the gondola makers don’t mind you watching them work from across the canal, and it seems lots of people like to take this opportunity. If you have a group of 25 or more, then you might be able to arrange a visit, but the owners tell me it is not always possible.
You could also try Oltrex tours which is based in the Hotel Daniele just off Piazza San Marco. They apparently do a two-hour tour to a gondola workshop, though it’s not clear which one.
Like so many novels, The Gondola Maker gives us an insight into a world very different from our own AND provides some great clues to encourage us to visit parts of a city we might otherwise ignore. The plot is not complex or overly-compelling, but the gentle storyline combined with the wealth of detail and atmosphere makes this a worthy read for anyone considering a trip to Venice in the future – it will most certainly add to your experience there.
And I’m now actually pleased I have not yet ridden in a gondola – because when I do, I will be taking a lot more notice of the craft involved than I would have done before coming across this book. Have a read, and I’m sure you will do the same.
P.S. I received a complimentary copy of The Gondola Maker from iRead Book Tours in exchange for an honest opinion of the book. This review is part of a Book Tour around several blogs, so I highly recommend you read the views of other bloggers by following the tour schedule here – this gives you a great all-round view of the novel.
If you are still hankering for more books set in Italy, you’ll find many more to choose from here!