30 June, 2006

36. Made under license in the PRC?

It's hard to know how many gondola-building boatyards are still functioning in Venice. Some sources say three, some 'a few', and one story I read referred to this boatyard on the Rio Trovaso in Dorsoduro as the very last one still in operation.

I find that hard to believe, but if it is true, then tomorrow's gondoliers are in deep trouble, because the two men in overalls who seemed to be the only workers in this boatyard could not in anyone's wildest imagination replace or even do basic maintenance on Venice's substantial fleet of gondolas on their own.

Gondola manufacturing is a complex and skilled process. Each boat is hand-crafted from 280 separate pieces of nine different kinds of wood. The main frame is oak, and other parts are made from beech, cherry, walnut, mahogany, fir, larch, elm, and lime.

Making a gondola supposedly takes about three months and a new gondola, with its seven layers of black lacquer, supposedly costs somewhere around 15,000-20,000 Euros. I keep saying 'supposedly', because to me, that doesn't sound like a lot of money for something hand-crafted with great precision into something so uniquely beautiful yet durable and functional and twice the length of an average car.

The price might be feasible if gondolas were manufactured with the same boat-building efficiency that used to operate in the old Venetian Arsenale, but sadly, there was no evidence of that sort of organisation or sense of urgency in this boatyard. I walked past this business every day for two weeks. The two workers were always there, sometimes sitting and chatting, sometimes standing and arguing, sometimes just hanging around smoking, but in all that time, nothing moved in the yard, and no visible progress was made on either of the boats propped up on the sawhorses.

Perhaps this boatyard is an illusion created just for the tourists. Perhaps they don't make gondolas in Venice at all anymore. Perhaps they are actually stamped out of fiberglass in China. Don't laugh, that idea's a lot more credible than trying to imagine this boatyard as the engine room of the gondola manufacturing industry.


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