FORCOLA (singular) FORCOLE (plural)
In Chapter 7 “Messing about in boats”, I think any Reader will immediately see that one of my favorite elements of Venice is her boats…and one of my favorite pastimes…simply watching the Venetian boatmen move them through the city.
Chapter 7 became quite a problem when I realized that if I were to describe all boats, their history and evolution, I would simply need to write another book. There are such books, my favorite being “Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance” by the wonderful scholar Professor Frederic C. Lane whose knowledge and story telling skills are beyond anything I could hope to achieve.
… So, the chapter mostly addresses those questions that I believe many visitors to La Serenissima might ask as they explore the city.
I am often asked “Why do they stand to row?” … which is usually followed by “How do they stand to row? … the first question I answer by drawing conclusions about rowing a boat through high reeds in shallow water … the second requires some discussion centered around the physics of thrust.
However, the discussion almost always focuses on the small device fitted into the gunwale that receives the oar … the Forcola.
This week I received several questions about this particularly Venetian device and thought it would be a good topic for this week’s blog.
In chapter 7, on page 88 I have written…
And so it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that the providence of the Venetian Empire was powered by the stroke of an oar.
Each one of these oars required an oarlock or forcola, and these devices proliferated in both number and application over the centuries. A vessel without a forcola could not be rowed…The comparison to an automobile without a drive shaft is appropriate.
If the number of gondole was truly as high as 10,000 then that number alone would have kept many craftsmen busy both making and repairing oars and forcole. However when we also take into consideration all of the vessels that transported food and commodities, it becomes clear that the group of craftsmen that were called Remieri had a pivotal part to play in the day to day life of the average Venetian. They formed their own guild in 1307 that allowed them to control standards and quality, and to share the sophistications of their craft. In the 1770’s the forcole underwent a major change and the beautiful elbow like curve called the Sanca became a part of its design. It is this curve that allows the rower to row backwards, an extremely important tool in the tight and narrow canals that are the back streets of Venice.
I find it difficult to believe, then, that this essential group of craftsmen almost became extinct and in fact arrived at a point in history where there was only one of them left.
Giuseppe Carli was the last Remer in Venice. He was born in 1915 and apprenticed under both his father and older brother. When they died he inherited the last oar and focula workshop in Venice which is a wondrous medieval building tucked away in a tiny alleyway not far from San Zaccaria. Carli in his turn, apprenticed two young Venetians…The first of them, Saverio Pastor left to start his own workshop. The second, Paolo Brandolisio was still very young when in 1987 Carli died and there was some concern that he may not have been ready to take over the workshop. Quickly he established that he not only had learned well from his Master, but was also a highly skilled wood worker.
With great friendliness and patience Paolo allows me to drop in whenever I want to, and I have spent a great deal of time watching him work. The ancient workshop has two large skylights which cast a cool silver light on a white stone floor that has been polished smooth by centuries of footsteps. The floor is always littered with shavings and chips and the smell of wood is everywhere. Oars are stacked against one end of the workshop and ancient templates and forcole in every stage of completion hang from the beams and shelves. Everything is covered in sawdust which seems to constantly hang in the air, moving slowly through the shafts of light slanting down from the skylights.
Using the skills and the ancient patterns of the Masters before him, Paolo coaxes these elegant, almost serpentine shapes out of raw blanks of walnut, cherry, pear, apple and maple that he has selected. Logs are quartered, the bark and sapwood removed and then left to cure for up to 3 years. They are the dusty amorphous shapes tucked back into the corners and along the base of the far wall.
The magnificent oars of Venice are long and smooth, with clean lines that sweep from the handle, which has no notches, grips, ropes or other devices for engaging the forcola. It is custom made to the exact grip of each gondolier, down to the slender blades that are fashioned to the preference of the gondolier. Paolo makes nothing that is not custom designed for a particular individual, and each work is a sculpture. No two will be identical. The process of customizing the forcola and oar requires that the oar fits into the groove that is literally “bitten out” of the head of the forcola. This groove is called the “morso”. The shaft and the blade are made from different woods, and when they become worn, Paolo is clever enough to replace the blades on a shaft that may have seen many years of work …All in the hands of one loving individual.
Gondoliers are constantly bringing their oars for this refurbishment, and a great sheaf of them leans against one end of the workshop. Little has changed in this ancient workshop. There are few power tools, and Paolo uses some hand tools that I have never seen before, so it is not difficult to imagine yourself in this place hundreds of years ago. It is here that I feel a connection to a Venice of great antiquity, but every time that I say “Ciao” to Paolo and step back into the narrow alleyway I have an almost ominous feeling that what is happening behind the thick walls of this ancient workshop is slowly sliding away as the crush and the noise of the twenty first century approaches.
The remarkable thing about Venetian boat building and the attendant devices which are the oars and forcole, is that they have undergone continuous and perhaps constant evolution.
Some materials used in the past are literally not available any more. (trees were actually cultivated in groves where they were bent so that the grain of the wood followed the curvature of the frame… Some timber is either not available at all, or only from young trees.) Technology has of course had a profound affect, and adhesives, varnishes and power tools all contribute to these changes. The current shape of Venice’s most recognized vessel, the gondola, only arrived early in the 20th century, and I presume its evolution continues.
As the forcola evolved it became more and more complex (even convoluted), and its wonderful organic shape not only became more practical, but more beautiful as well.
It was Saverio’s and Paolo’s maestro, Giuseppe Carli who first presented the forcola as an art piece, and The Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired one for its collection. (Saverio Pastor is also represented in the same collection.) The Forcola is still created almost entirely by hand, and their makers approach each one as an individual piece; a sculptural statement beyond its practical application.
One of my prized possessions is one of Paolo’s forcole, and I never tire of looking at its wonderful curves and the glow of its wood.
This illustration will give you some idea of its complex application.
Both Paolo and Saverio have websites that will allow you to enjoy and understand their work, and Paolo has an excellent You Tube video that shows him at work.
You Tube…..Ancorartigiani- Paul Brandolisio
Saverio’s book simply entitled “Forcole” which is available on his web site contains an enormous amount of information and some of the most beautiful photographs of forcole that I have ever seen.
I hope I have answered some of your questions, but will be much happier if I have managed to whet your appetite for more information. How wonderful it will be, if I actually have planted a seed that will finally flourish when you stand in one of these old workshops.
Oh yes…and if you’d like to buy my book, SIAMO FORESTI, about my love affair with Venice, here it is: Book Siamo Foresti