Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Fiberglass Controversy - Opinions Abound

If you missed it, last week we were tossing around opinions about the most recent topic of heated debate in Venice, something I'm calling the "Fiberglass Controversy".
Nereo Zane recently posted about it on his blog, and it is worthy of
After a simple posting here to direct readers to Nereo's blog, I received some feedback from friends about various facets of the subject.

Bepi Venexiano brought up the fact that sparkling wine can only be called "Champagne" if it is made in the Champagne region of France. He posited that
"Unless a gondola is made in Venice of traditional materials than it should not be called a gondola, maybe we could call them Non-dolas"

Sean threw some good questions out on the table about what makes a gondola a gondola, suggesting that the boat we row today is only the current-day edition in an evolutionary process.

Nereo informed us that
"Ente Gondola and El Félze are working on a document that will define every detail on how to build a gondola."

Tamas pointed out a sticky detail about how "Gondolas are made personalized to the rower and every venetian shipwright has slightly different taste with regards to curves, measurements and methods of wood bending".

I think one of the things that make gondolas so special is the fact that no two gondolas are exactly alike. Add to that the practice that so many gondoliers participate in: making their boat unique and/or better than the rest, and total conformity would likely raise more frustration and opinions than anything we've seen in a long time. Arguably, if every gondola in Venice was exactly the same, the attitude of the gondoliers would certainly be affected.

My guess is that if Ente Gondola and El Félze do manage to stick a big pin somewhere on the map, indicating what is and is not a gondola, it will leave room for some flexibility and, like most rules and decrees in Italy, be routinely disregarded in various ways.

The question of "what is a gondola" still lingers though.
Sean in Coronado, California wrote:

"If Roberto Tramontin built a boat in Kansas, exactly like if he was in Venice, and then shipped it to Venice, would it be a gondola?"

Let me throw out a few more "what ifs":
What if an American builds it in Venice, using the same parts and processes as they use in the squero he learned in and builds the boat in. Is it a gondola (Thom Price)

If that same American opens his own squero, using some new ideas, but still relying on Venetian training and lumber, is it a gondola? (Thom Price again)

What if a Dutch woman builds it, in Holland, but using training she received in Venice from the Tramontin family? It looks like the same boat, rows like the same boat, and could easily be used in Venice to take passengers like all the other gondolas. Is it a gondola? (Tirza Mol)

How about if an Australian buys plans from Venice, and builds himself a gondola using only woods that are native to Australia. Is that a gondola? (Martin Krauss)

A Venetian builds them, in Venice (technically Giudecca), according to the standard dimensions, but incorporates plywood? (Crea)

What if a guy in Massachussetts builds a gondola, using plans and photos from an older design, producing a dynamically beautiful black boat, which is a perfect recreation of gondolas in the 1800's, rowing it in Providence, R.I. - is it a gondola? (Alan "Marco" Days)

How about if Squero dei Rossi, builds a gondola, in perfect traditional form, using all the correct woods and processes, but while Roberto dei Rossi is out sick, a worker has a little too much to drink and incorporates a piece of carbon fiber into the mix? (I just threw that one in for fun - it didn't really happen)

From what I know and have heard about Squero dei Rossi, they would probably be the last to do something viewed as non-traditional, but like everyone else, they turn out boats with slightly varying dimensions based on the preferences of the gondoliers who order them.

I would venture to guess that throughout her history, our beloved gondola has been the subject of innumerable arguments regarding her dimensions, materials, the processes used, and the people who were involved in the manufacture. The first views we have of the gondola, which date back centuries, present something much smaller and simpler than the ones we see today.

Ah, but there are always going to be strong opinions in the air. I'm sure someone out there would be so bold as to say that a gondola built in Venice, by Venetians, using traditional methods and materials, but under the umbrella of a foreign company - was not a "true gondola".

We've all seen the gleaming stainless steel trim that is commonplace in Venice, but as I understand it, for the longest time it was brass, and only brass that adorned the rails of the gondola. Surely there were naysayers when the first stainless trim was spotted afloat.

I can only imagine the words that were spoken among gondoliers and squerarioli, when the very first asymmetric gondola rowed by. Domenico Tramontin is viewed these days as one of the "old masters", his name is like that of a saint among gondola people, but in the mid 1800's he was probably considered by many as a rebel. "What kind of crazy guy builds a crooked boat?" they probably asked. As it turned out, this was just one of the many chapters in that evolutionary process.

The use of the word "gondola" is thrown around liberaly outside Venice, and the further you get from the Veneto, the more extreme the variations become. Here in Southern California we've seen "gondolas" which were white boats, powered by electric golf cart motors, built on steel frames with plywood and fiberglass, and ranging in size all the way down to 24 feet in length. I proposed to my wife on one such boat back in '93. And while that may not sound much like the gondola that Venice is known for, when we were cruising the waters of Newport, people waved and said things like "that's a beautiful gondola".

Is a chug-chug water taxi in the harbor of Dubai beautiful? "Beauty" is a relative term. Is it a gondola just because they call it one? My guess is that that is the question the folks in Ente Gondola and El Félze are hoping to answer.

My posts are always open to comment and critique.
Today is no exception. Feel free to submit your thoughts on the subject.


Bob Easton said...

While I would really, really, really like to agree with Bepi, I think his definition too literal. Champagne indistinguishable from that made in France, flows freely all over the world.

I'll be my usual pedantic self now.

What does Gilberto Penzo say? He wrote the book. He already placed a pin in the map.

Naval architects (Penzo is one) have been classifying boat types for a couple of hundred years. For example, a skiff is usually a flat bottom boat within limited dimensions, while a canoe is a certain shape boat of set proportions and certain accommodations. Many other types have distinctive sets of characteristics, allowing virtually any boat to be cast into a specific type.

The same can be said for a gondola, having a very distinctive asymmetrical keel, an overall length of approximately 12-14 meters, decks of a specific number and shape, and manual propulsion via specific fixtures and oars (OK, remi). Note how these characteristics distinguish a gondola from other Venetian boats.

The point I'm making is that "gondola" is a type, not a brand.

Were "Gondola" a brand, such as a Trumpy Yacht, then Bepi would be absolutely correct. Only those boats made by the squero licensed to use the brand name "Gondola" could be called such, and one would imagine that license would be strongly protected.

So, many of the suppositions you pose could be answered "yes."

Being a romantic and a lover of Venice, I would like to agree with those who think only gondola shaped boats built in Venice by traditional craftsmen (artisans actually) using traditional materials qualify as gondolas. (Is this why Thom's squero folded?)

Yet, I think the reality is that "gondola" is a type and not a brand, and that boats built to the characteristics, no matter where built or what materials used, are indeed gondolas.

Back to what started the discussion... I really prefer traditionally constructed boats. There are either wooden boats, or "tupperware."

Waiting for Penzo...

Bepi Venexiano said...

Great post Greg.

Bob- Great points. Based on design, propulsion etc. a vessel that meets those criteria are gondolas.
For the Venetians and for selfish reasons I would support the branding of the gondola. Sing with me. "Look forrrr.... the Venice la-bel when you are buying gondole or prows"

Tamás said...

> Is this why Thom's squero folded?

I've read Tom did not own his workshop, only rented it. He was making low to moderate profit building boats.

The real estate owner was offered a big pile of money by a nearby hotel (?) who needed the spot for extension, so Tom was told to leave and he couldn't find another affordable waterfront shed in Venice and had to return to USA.

This is not unqiue, e.g. a monastery sold their backyard for a new hotel construction, evicting one of the last kindergarten playgrounds in Venice, to be able to finance the rebuild of their dilapidated convent.

Soon there will be nothing left but hotels and gift shops...

Bob Easton said...

There's good reason to doubt that story.

Thom's former squero is NOT now a hotel. It is still operating as a boat building enterprise. It had a couple of topas in it when I walked by a couple of months ago.

As for nearby hotels, when one walks those calles, all that's found are private residences, and of course the hospital across the way.