insight - Paolo Brandolisio
Written by Nan McElroy
Occupation - Remèr
Remois the word for ‘oar’ in Italian; remèr is the Venetian term for the craftsmen who carve the oars that have plied Venetian waters for over 1,000 years.
As one of Venice’s most esteemed remèr, Paolo Brandolisio has crafted both remi and forcole for gondoliers and everyday rowers for over 20 years. Navigate to his bottega on the Calle Rota just off the Riva degli Schiavoni to discover a sunbathed woodworking shop replete with Venetian travi-beamed ceilings, well-worn implements, and mountains of wood in the most intriguing shapes.
Finished works are long and lithe or sinuous and sultry; massive trunks and lumber slabs await transformation into the prized, hewn objects that are their destiny. Without knowing anything about Brandolisio, the workshop’s history, or what is being crafted here, this would still be a fascinating place.
It’s easy to spot Paolo Brandolisio’s shiny brass name plate on his workshop door; look on the well-tarnished plate above it, and you’ll make out another name: ‘CARLI’. Synonymous with the profession of remèr, Giovanni Carli established his workshop before 1900, producing remi and forcole for gondoliers, private boat owners, and boat rental shops prevalent at the time. His ambitious son Vittorio inherited his expertise and the business, but it was humble yet visionary Giuseppe Carli who took over at his brother’s death and eventually transformed the forcola from a proletariat, purely functional object to the nobly sculpted work prized today by rowers and non-rowers alike.
In fact, it was in this historic laboratory in 1976 where Brandolisio, then studying to become an electrician, courageously presented Carli with his first attempt at carving a forcola – a copy of one fashioned by the maestro himself. Perfect it was not, but Carli saw real potential and offered Brandolisio a chance to advance his skills. The venerated Carli became the young Brandolisio’s maestro and mentor, and in 1987 when Carli stopped working due to illness, he offered the workshop with all its storied past to Paolo – still not quite 20 years old. A photo of the two of them taken from this time sits along the far wall among other historic objects, a testament to their relationship and the significance it still carries today.
Plenty of work
Today it is the gondoliers’ and regatanti (rowing racers’) insatiable need for creation and maintenance of their equipment that keep Brandolisio and his apprentice working, as evidenced by the soaring stack of perhaps a hundred oars in the centre of the workshop, all waiting for pickup. Each is inscribed in the traditional way with the gondolier’s sopranome (nickname) on the giròn, or shaft, just under the handle. “Some have been ready for over a year,” says Brandolisio. “But it’s not like any of us are going anywhere.”
Both oars and forcole are of primary importance and personal to any rower, gondolier, or otherwise. An oar will vary in length from two to five or more metres (6.5 to 16ft) depending on the type of boat and if it’s for rowing the prua (prow) or popa (helm) side. Weight and balance are paramount, as is the amount of stiffness or flexibility, and will vary not only according to personal preference and rowing style, but whether the primary use will be wending through the narrow canals of the city, or coursing at top speed across the lagoon in a regatta.
“That is probably the most difficult part of the job to learn,” says Brandolisio. “It’s not about just creating a decent oar or forcola, it’s about being able to customise them to fit a vogatore (rower)’s height, weight, and other specific needs that depend on how they row. Of course,” he smiles, “they have to know what they need.” Achieving this requires not only artisanal but a certain intuitive skill – all part of the job.
There are other challenges. The light-coloured ramin hardwood Brandolisio uses for his oars (also used for pool cues and even window blinds) originates from Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries – and is becoming harder to obtain. He’s begun using pine insets between the ramin oar shaft and the birch blade edges, but is now considering what other wood might be suitable once ramin is no longer available.
Oarlocks don’t actually lock, permitting the standing rower to withdraw the oar as needed to manoeuvre narrow canals; and their construction varies as much as, if not more than, that of the oar. There are specific forcole forms for every type of traditional craft (once more than 50, of which perhaps ten types remain), for rowing a specific boat, and specific side of the boat, or for rowing at the helm from where, as flat-bottomed Venetian boats have no keel or rudder, all navigation is controlled.
Gondola forcola carving is the most demanding of them all, however. Traditionally hewn from a solid walnut trunk (but also cherry or even pear), wood is ordered two or more years in advance, as it must be completely dry before it can be carved.
Unlike other oarlocks, every surface of the gondola forcola is utilised for manoeuvring the over 11m (36ft)-long craft; it must be adapted according to where and how the gondola will be rowed as well. “A gondolier who’s based in San Marco and will row the open bacino with more motor traffic will need a forcola constructed differently than one who’ll stay mostly in the narrow canals of San Polo,” says Brandolisio. Prouder gondoliers may also request personalised versions that incorporate more of the distinctive, stylised sculpture for which Carli and his protégé Brandolisio are known – many examples of these are on display in the workshop, and of course available for purchase by non-rowers from distant lands.
As mass tourism consumes more and more of traditional Venice, it’s heartening to see an artisan like Paolo Brandolisio not only sustain a viable living at a traditional skill such as remèr, yet conserve an important part of Venice’s heritage at the same time. As it says on his website, being a remèr “is not just a craft: it is an integral part of our personality and influences who we are.” No doubt Maestro Carli would agree.
Remèri like Paolo Brandolisio craft oars and forcole for non-naval Venetian boats such as the gondola; the squero is the traditional boatyard where they’re built. Famous for their resemblance to the mountain homes of woodworkers who descended from areas like Cadore in the Dolomites to set up shop in Venice, one of the last and most visible is the Squero San Trovaso, that even without an official tour can be viewed from across the sunny rio on which it sits.
Visits are offered for groups of at least 15 people; alternatively check with private guide services for individual tours.
Squero San Trovaso
Saving the Slow Boat
Starting in the 1960s as private motor boats became less expensive to own and more prolific in the city, traditional rowboat use began to drop off – dramatically. Numerous fitabatele – thriving boat rental services for private and transport needs alike – disappeared; wooden boats were burned, sawed into pieces, or abandoned to disintegrate; squero and remèr workshop demand plummeted as motor power superseded manpower. The first Vogalonga held in 1975 protested the resulting wave motion, “although the whole reason for the Vogalonga has been lost,” laments Brandolisio.
Were it not for the private, non-profit Associazione Arzanà, there would be few original examples left of the traditional craft and accoutrements that comprised Venice’s primary mode of transportation since its inception. Located in the ex-squero Casal in Cannaregio, this non-profit organisation seeks to document the craft and way of life associated with them, conserving them physically whenever possible. Visit their website to learn more – the images alone are worth the surf.