I requested this book from NetGalley, because I have a vacation planned in Venice this summer, and I knew this would get me in the mood. Not that you ever need to “get in the mood” for a trip to Italy, but there’s still snow outside my window, and I’m trying to forget it’s winter. Also, I have a fondness for Gondolas since my first trip to Venice. I had gotten a book that promised the inside track on all the cool, obscure, non-touristy things to see while I was there. One of these was a trip to a forcola maker. This, if you don’t know it, is the piece that holds the oar on the gondola. It is also, by itself, a work of art, lovingly sculpted with sensuous curves. We went to Venice, guidebook in hand (yes, exactly like the tourists we mocked), and searched for that shop. When the rain began, we ignored it; determined to have an adventure. Finally, at the point of giving up, we sought shelter under the awning of a workshop. My husband pulled out the book, and I turned around. Of course, we were standing in the forcola maker’s shop.
The beauty of that shop has stayed with me for years, and, reading this book brought it all back. The story follows the gondola maker’s son Luca, as he searches for his destiny in 16th century Venice. The skill and craftsmanship it took to fashion the boats is related in lavish detail, and is surprisingly compelling. The care that the builders take is evident, as each laborer takes a responsibility for a part of the whole.
But it is not just a book about boat making. There is plenty of family drama and even a bit of romance. There are opulent parties and threadbare accommodations, all ranges of wealth within the confines of this strange and miraculous city. I especially loved the costume maker, who supplied people with fabulous party clothes on a rental basis. Not sure how much that cost, but it was way ahead of its time.
After leaving his family and a few short-lived positions, Luca takes refuge as a boatman for an artist. This provides an inside look at the position of the artist in this society — a person revered, but really just on the fringes of the wealthy nobles who are his clients. It also gives us a peek into the life of the boatmen, who glide around Venice, communicating in a vast language of gestures that only the boatmen share.
The thing about this story is that, while the characters are an interesting and motley crew, the gondola is truly the living, breathing, heart of this book. The love and craft that is poured into each boat is evident in the detail, and every descriptive phrase brought it to life. I am sure that when I return to Venice this summer, I will see the city in a whole new light. And, even if you aren’t able to take the trip, reading this book will almost make you feel as if you had.