I’m always in favor of supporting local artisans, and if you want to experience something different, something only found in Venice, visit a forcola workshop. Very few of these woodcarving workshops remain today. Their specialty is to make oars (remi) and oarlocks (forcole), necessities for gondoliers and rowers to use on boats in Venice. A visit to a forcola workshop is a glimpse into Venetian life and tradition.
Franco Furlanetto’s workshop in the San Polo district is a step back in time as he custom-crafts each piece from cherry or walnut tree trunks. He also creates works of art from these same pieces, and although these objects make unique souvenirs, some have found their way into museums around the world.
The workshop of Paolo Brandolisio in Castello is another hidden jewel. Paolo is one of only four remèri, the Venetian dialect word for artisans who specialize in making traditional Venetian forcole. His mentor was the famous Giuseppi Carli, whose two-meter-tall forcola is part of a collection in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. Carli was the first to present the forcola as an art piece. In Paolo’s workshop, guests can purchase a small version of a forcola, which the master will custom-craft the same day. I can’t think of a more personal and unique souvenir to keep the memory of a Venice vacation alive.
Saverio Pastor’s workshop, Le Forcole, is located not far from the church of the Madonna della Salute in Dorsoduro. With forty-five years of experience, this Venetian artisan also learned the craft at a young age from Giuseppe Carli. At Pastor’s workshop, you can watch this master as he crafts the next piece and also purchase a scaled model of an authentic forcola or a large sculpture of one.
The youngest of the remèri is Piero Dri, who was born in Venice in 1983. While completing a master’s degree in astronomy at the university in Padua, he pursued another passion and began working under the tutelage of none other than Paolo Brandolisio in 2006. Seven years later, Piero opened his own workshop in Cannaregio, Il Forcolaio Matto, or The Mad Forcolier. Here he creates oarlocks for gondolas and all types of rowing boats. He’s been doing what he loves most for fifteen years. Piero says he enjoys his craft because it allows him to be who he is—artistic, but with a talent for precision and technical skills at the same time.
A visit to his workshop is literally a look back at the tools used for generations. Piero says he always uses walnut because of its strength, and he explains that each forcola is unique in size and shape, based on the type of boat. What’s interesting to learn is every forcola is made with seven different push or support points in order to steer and control the boat with the one oar. Like the other remèri, Piero also produces smaller pieces as works of art. One in particular is a lamp base which now resides in San Francisco. He’s happy to allow guests to watch him work, and you just might find the perfect gift to take back home while you’re there. Special mementos like this trigger the best memories for me years after I return from a visit to a favorite place.
Excerpt from The Venice I Know, in paperback, kindle, and now, also as an audiobook. Listen to a sample here.
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