There are beautiful objects, and there are useful objects. Some sophisticated dandy came up with the theory, intentionally provocative perhaps, that an object, in order to be considered truly beautiful must have no use whatsoever.
In reality, it is quite rare to find an object that combines great usefulness with aesthetic wonder. When such miracle happens, we suddenly realise we are in front of a functional splendour.
One such miraculous object is the Venetian fórcola, technically "a wooden rowlock to keep an oar in place" or, in more commonly understood terms, that beautiful piece of wood on which gondoliers rest their oars when steering their sumptuous boats.
The first thing that strikes you when seeing a fórcola is its exceptional beauty, its daring design that seems to be the fruit of a visionary artist. Each fórcola is different from the others. Every oxbow, each elbow, each shoulder and each recess has a specific function and is the fruit of a centuries-long evolution, a result of continuous, small improvements that have led to the present shape. Fórcole are – to stick to marine terms – like sharks, which have evolved over thousands of years to become the most extraordinary marine hunters on our planet.
Indeed, the gondola is nearly 11 meters long, a large boat compared to many sailboats and motorboats that crowd our marinas. Using a fórcola and an oar, which serves also as a rudder, a gondolier can steer his boat and expertly manoeuvre his way around obstacles along the narrow canals of the old Serenissima Republic city. Each section of the fórcola can be used by the gondolier to support his oar and keep his boat balanced at all times.
There are only 4 craftsmen in Venice, called remèri in Venetian dialect, who produce fórcole and oars for gondolas and all other boats, from rowing race boats to work boats that are based on Venetian-style rowing. One of them is Piero Dri, whose botega is located between Ramo dell'Oca and Calle del Cristo, in one of those viuzze (alleys) that – once away from the crowded "highways" thronged by herds of tourists – draw you into Venice's eternal magic.
The sign above the door reads "The Nutty Fórcola Maker", though in truth Piero is a wise, quiet and thoughtful young man; it's also true that in a world gone mad such as ours the wise are mistaken for the crazy. His definition of his 'madness' explains a lot: "I like to do what no one else does. I don't want to be one among many."
Piero, who has always been drawn to Venetian-style rowing and historical Venetian boats, thanks to his grandfather, has actually earned a degree in Astronomy. Studying at the University of Padua, he began to feel he was missing something, to feel nostalgia for Venice and, most of all, understood that he wanted to do something concrete for Venice, that part of everyday Venice that carries on the city's long and extraordinary history and tradition far from the madding tourist crowds.
And so, in 2006 he joined master remèr Paul Brandolisio's workshop to begin his 'learning', and in 2013 he opened his own botega where he still works with great enthusiasm. His botega has gained acclaim among residents of the Cannaregio neighbourhood who wish to keep on living in 'their' Venice.
Piero is part of an elite group of craftsmen who work within the world of gondolas and other boats that are driven by Venetian-style rowing, a world governed by the Mariegola, a set of rules regarding arts, crafts and associations which dates back to 1307.
Venice is the only city, certainly in Italy and most likely also in Europe, where the figure of the battioro – the craftsman who creates from metal ingots precious golden leaves which are used to decorate gorgeous gondolas – still exists. Set at the centre of Piero's botega stands a 1970s model of the Invincible 2000 D combined machine, bought used from a Venetian boat building shop.
Still in perfect condition, the machine is skilfully used by Dri for "larger jobs". This machine is used in the early stages of work. A fórcola is produced from a walnut trunk divided into quarters. Picking such a quarter, which can also come from cherry or pear trees, Piero begins to give shape to the fórcola, going through a series of processes: first through a machine for rough-hewing it and then giving it the final shape using hand tools only.
Equally important is the production and restoration of oars which, in the case of gondolas, never come out of the water during rowing and have a very special hydrodynamic shape to help gondoliers, who use them to propel as well as steer their boats.
In his botega, Piero produces a wide range of products besides those meant for gondolas. They include plenty of oars and oarlocks for rowing race boats. In this line of products there is a continuing research and development process in order to be able to offer racers the best performing tools: during centuries-old traditional rowing races, the shape of an oarlock and the thickness of an oar can make the difference between winning and losing.
For boating enthusiasts, the botega is a small treasure trove where they can find strewn on the floor among thousands of other items, propellers, pulley blocks, bitter ends, and more. The more discerning tourists get off the Strada Nova and stop by to enjoy the botega, to shockingly realise that Venice is not only a city of single-brand clothing and souvenir shops.
While planing an oar and sanding a fórcola, Piero airs his vision of Venice, a community that gets together (indeed, his botega has hosted a number of recitals) and seeks to conserve centuries-old traditions and traditional daily life. And he spares no criticism of the lack of policies in support of those who wish to continue living in Venice without seeing it turn into a museum.
We conclude our chat in Campo Santi Apostoli, inside a bàcaro, trying to choose our appetisers among the inevitable cichetti and drink a couple of ombre. Sailing across the water were gondolas, mascarete, sandoli and pupparin (all types of Venetian rowing boats), and Piero, when not inspecting their fórcole and oars, kept looking up at the starry sky, which we all know is up above us and in our hearts.