Arriving in Venice, it is impossible for a guest’s attention not to be attracted by the slow and silent movement of the gondolas.
Rowing standing up
The gondola is the best-known Venetian boat, but there were about 100 different boats “alla veneta”, all these boats were united by having at least one forcola (open rowlock) and an oar. This technique of rowing standing up developed mainly on the shallow coasts of the lagoon of Venice, Grado and the Valleys of Comacchio that had similar characteristics. Rowing standing up was in fact used to control the bottom of the sea, to avoid running aground, but also to check the presence or absence of birds or other prey to be hunted. Another common feature was the flat bottom that served to easily moor the boats in case of need between the sandbanks, or the islets that form the lagoon.
Rowing and construction technique
These elements allowed the development of a rowing and construction technique that persists until today. Behind the curvature of the movements and the gracefulness of the shapes of the boats hides a constructive and technical complexity, just think that a gondola can be made up of 240 pieces of 7 different varieties of wood, but it is not the most complex boat to build in Venice. The rowing technique reflects the complexity of the lagoon, where shallow or deep water, areas with “dead” or calm currents or with strong currents alternate. Sometimes these characteristics are also found in the Venetian canals, where the walls and foundations of the buildings form tunnels for the wind and tides, therefore currents can be created that can make rowing boats difficult.
Reading this you might think that to row you have to be Venetian, well, nothing could be falser. There are courses in the various “società remiere” and there are also English or German instructors who live in Venice that dedicate their time to teaching this rowing technique.
But what does the technique consist of? How do you not lose your oar?
Summarizing in an honest and simple way, we can say that the technique consists of two passes in the water: the premada and the staissada. In other words, the oar is immersed in the water, and it is pushed (premada) then it does not come out of the water immediately, but it “trails”, that is, it remains in the water slightly more inclined. This double movement allows the rower to move his or her boat in the direction he or she wants and allows the oar not to come out of the rowlock. I repeat, theory is one thing, but technique is another.
I too have lost my oar so many times that I don’t even remember, but I do remember all the falls I have had in the boat because slamming any part of our body hard against a sharp wooden edge leaves its mark, and not only on the body but also on the mind.
But the joy of executing the movement well, of feeling the boat sliding on the water accompanied by the sound of the oar going in and out and, when you are lucky, you can hear the drops falling from the oar.