Gondola builders and the true icon of Venice

Gondola builders: they are the ones that turned the gondola into the most iconic image of Venice. Is there still anybody that doesn’t connect it to Venice? Sometimes improperly used to address any Venetian boat, including motor water taxis —heretical, isn’t it?—, “gondola” is a magical word embodying the exotic nature of this city. 

In fact, is there anything more absurd than a gondola? Eccentric in its shape that hardly seems to enjoy of some stability… So high that it’s almost unable to pass under some low bridges during high tide. So long that you cannot believe how easily it turns around the meandering narrow canals of this city.

The Tramontin's gondola yard in Venice founded in 1884

The Tramontin’s gondola yard in Venice founded in 1884

And yet,

a gondola is as elegant as a beautiful woman wearing a long black dress

Roberto Tramontin used to say.

Roberto Tramontin, a “squerariolo”

A “squerariolo”: Roberto built gondolas, as his father Nedis, as his grandfather Giovanni and as his great grandfather, Domenico Tramontin. All gondola builders. I met Roberto a few years ago. A strong and tall man. Humble, straightforward and entertaining. He made fun of me because I often wore immaculate white dresses when visiting his workshop, the triumph of fresh black paint, sawdust and unpaved dirty floor.

I loved the fact he forced visitors to stand while he sat and talked about his work, excusing himself for his tired back that hurt, thus making clear his job was not a joke. 

June 29th 2016, a portrait of the gondola builder Roberto Tramontin by his daughter Elena Tramontin, Venice

June 29th 2016, a portrait of the gondola builder Roberto Tramontin by his daughter Elena Tramontin, Venice

Roberto Tramontin passed away, still young, on November 7th, 2018 killed by a very aggressive disease. And his sudden loss left the whole city astonished. 

In his pocket three nails, just like with his father and grandfather

so his daughter Elena told me Roberto was buried. “He wore his polo-shirt with our family name” as he was a man whose “squero”, the workshop where he built his gondolas, was more his home than any other place. 

Tramontin’s squero

It was in the squero that they arranged his daughters’ birthday parties, just to mention something you may not expect. In an interview he left, he admitted “This place to me is like a bubble”, where he felt at ease as nowhere else, separated from the rest of the world, pursuing to build gondolas, admitting the most beautiful one would always be the next one.

Is there any difference between the most celebrated palaces on the Grand Canal and this squero where gondola builders work?

The Tramontin's gondola yard in Venice founded in 1884

The Tramontin’s gondola yard in Venice founded in 1884

Not really. They are all incredibly evocative spaces where the past heritage accumulates, generation after generation, to represent the history of Venice in its layers. It’s a complicated history, that of these places, indeed. You feel they are torn between the advancing modernity and the overwhelming presence of a past you can’t live without.

The history of this gondola yard and the technique to build a gondola

Domenico Tramontin founded his squero in Venice, in the district of Dorsoduro on February 2nd, 1884. His “cantiere” is still the one Roberto used to start building a gondola. The “cantiere” is the backbone around which the first of the over 280 wooden pieces composing the gondola are laid by gondola builders.

The "cantiere" in Tramontin's gondola yard in Venice, 1884, detail

The “cantiere” in Tramontin’s gondola yard in Venice, 1884, detail

Domenico Tramontin was the one that gave the gondola its asymmetrical shape and considered tailoring the stern according to the weight of the gondolier. Did you get it? So the gondola is not just absurd, eccentric, exotic, elegant… but it’s always different as anything hand-made is.

The Venetian freezing winter is the best season to build a gondola. Months and months of hard work, shaping all its pieces, connecting, alternating water and fire to give the right form. Plus six layers of black paint, smoothing with sand paper the whole external hull in its incredible length (11 metres!) after each layer of paint is done. No margin for mistake.

Elena and Elisabetta Tramontin and Matteo Tamassia

After 3,500 gondolas were born in this place, could Roberto’s death put an end to all this? In the last ten years Roberto had worked with the “maestro d’ascia”, a shipwright with over 30 years of experience, Matteo Tamassia. A great combination, as Roberto was not jealous of what he had learnt from his father and Matteo admitted he was originally not so familiar with the ancient construction measurements and had to learn a lot from scratch. In fact, gondolas are not measured in meters, but all is still as in the ancient past times with the Venetian “passetto”, “pie” and “once”, not using drawings or projects but the “sesti”, a sort of templates, as five hundred years ago.

When asked, what about the future of this gondola yard, Roberto replied he had two daughters. I always felt his thought was the need to keep the tradition in his family. But, even if it was hard to tell what he really thought about it, I never felt any melancholic note in his voice. His daughter Elena told me, they didn’t talk about the future of the squero, only because there was no need to. 

Elisabetta and Elena Tramontin, gondola builders, Venice 2019

Elisabetta and Elena Tramontin, gondola builders, Venice 2019

Elisabetta Tramontin lifting her first gondola, Venice 2019

Elisabetta Tramontin lifting her first gondola, Venice 2019

You should see Elena and Elisabetta now that they had decided to continue the tradition and to take over their father’s business.

Elisabetta and Elena Tramontin, while working at their first gondola, 2019

Elisabetta and Elena Tramontin, while working at their first gondola, 2019

As it’s not just a business. The ax of their dad is kept somewhere safe.

Roberto Tramontin's ax in his great grandfather's gondola yard in Venice

Roberto Tramontin’s ax in his great grandfather’s gondola yard in Venice

Matteo is there, too. Certainly the two sisters are not presumptuous, but aware of the difficulties. They know they will need time and help to learn.

The future of the squero

Under the gaze of their ancestors, Elisabetta has learned how to paint a gondola and their first creature touched the water after seven months of hard work on June 27th, 2019. 

The photo of Domenico Tramontin, the founder of a gondola yard in Venice, 1884

The photo of Domenico Tramontin, the founder of a gondola yard in Venice, 1884

You need courage to confront the skepticism of the ones wondering how these two ladies can become gondola builders and learn such a complicated craft.

But this is nothing compared to the courage to confront the loss of their father, breathing the air he breathed, touching every day the place he felt as his home. His presence is everywhere, any time. I am sure he would not just be proud of them, but also entertained as they respond, they are there, ready to take care of this invaluable icon of Venice with their cherishing hands.

Elisabetta Tramontin, while working at her first gondola, 2019

Elisabetta Tramontin, while working at her first gondola, 2019

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
www.seevenice.it

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Showing 4 comments
  • Gail S
    Reply

    Great article Luisella! Was their first gondola specially ordered by someone – or all they all special orders?

    • Reply

      Dear Gail, thank you for leaving a comment! The first gondola launched by the Tramontin sisters with the essential help of the shipwright Matteo Tamassia was built for Marco Pellizzaro, so called ‘Bombo’, a gondolier working opposite the hotel Danieli in St Mark’s square. And yes, all gondolas are private and commissioned by gondoliers that decide all optionals!

  • Rob S.
    Reply

    I concur with Gail, Luisella! Very well done.

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