Venice gondola builders strive to keep tradition alive

Tue Oct 22, 2013 11:23am EDT
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By Isla Binnie

VENICE, Italy (Reuters) - The sleek black gondolas that whisper through Venice bear the hallmarks of a tiny but proud group of artisans striving to keep alive the traditional building methods for the floating city's most recognizable symbol.

Each steered by a lone gondolier in a striped shirt and straw hat, the slender luxury vehicles offer a romantic setting for a serene cruise and, not uncommonly, a proposal of marriage.

There were some 7,000 in Venice about 700 years ago, according to gondoliers' association Ente Gondola, but their use as everyday transport has been supplanted by modern boats. The remaining 433 are now primarily a tourist attraction.

At the Tramontin boatyard - known as a "squero" in Venetian dialect - gondola builder Roberto Tramontin explains why the family business founded by his great-grandfather in 1884 still makes the classic boat.

"It is like a woman, without too much makeup, in a black Armani gown, with just a diamond at her throat," he said.

It takes two months to build one from 280 pieces of various wood including lime, oak, mahogany, walnut, cherry, fir, larch and elm, all adding up to a price tag of about 38,000 euros ($51,900), Tramontin said.

The wood is treated for up to a year before it can be wrought into the slightly asymmetrical banana shape that allows a single gondolier to propel it in a straight line.

The gondola builders practice for years before starting to build boats to measure according to each gondolier's weight.   Continued...

A gondolier holds an oar of his gondola at the San Trovaso boatyard known as a "squero", in Venice October 14, 2013. REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini