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Posted on: Sunday, August 19, 2007

In Venice, another island culture found in oar shop

By Bonnie Friedman
Special to The Advertiser

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Maestro Saverio Pastor, right, and his apprentice, Pietro Meneghini, practice the art of carving oars and oar rests at Le Fórcole.

Photos by BONNIE FRIEDMAN | Special to The Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

An oar rest, or forcole, for a gondola, sits outside the Le Fórcole workshop in Venice.

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VENICE, Italy — On this particular morning the workshop of Le Fórcole was, literally, abuzz as the maestro made the final mechanized cuts to an oar. His young apprentice was deep in concentration as he finished sanding another. Or so he thought. When the maestro checked the apprentice's work, he said it was too strong.

"Too strong?" I asked.

"Yes," the apprentice explained. "It must be flexible."

"What do you do now?"

"Keep working it."

These are not the hoe with which Island paddlers move their wa'a swiftly and smoothly through the channels. These are the remi with which the gondolieri of Venice deftly maneuver their 35-plus-foot-long craft through the city's maze of canals. They are more than 10 feet long and are specifically designed for the Venetian rowing style — voga alla veneta — standing up, with a high vantage point to improve visibility and maneuverability.

I had been passing the workshop — with its sweet smell of cherry, maple and walnut shavings wafting out into the street — and glancing in several times a day for many days before I ventured in to have a real look around. I had visited the Web site address engraved on the door plaque, so I knew a bit about what was going on inside.

And what goes on inside, in addition to the carving of oars, is the sculpting of forcole, oar rests for gondole. Not oar locks as we know them; these are open, and they must accommodate a wide variety of oar movements. Though I suspect the maestro would modestly disagree, they also are beautiful works of art. There are examples at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and in the private collections of architects I.M. Pei and Frank Gehry.

Forty-seven-year-old Venetian native Saverio Pastor has been carving forcole and remi for more than 32 years. He is quiet, extremely humble. He just does what he does and teaches others to do it. There are no other carvers in his family. He has two young sons. They may or may not follow in his footsteps. "Only if they want to," he says.

I asked if he rowed; it seemed to me anyone who carves forcole and remi as well as he does would have to feel the feelings. "Yes, of course," he told me. He still rows; today his craft is his small fishing boat.

When I asked how he became interested in this particular art, he answered matter-of-factly. "When I was young, one of our oars needed repairing."

Well, of course. Necessity is the mother of profession.

He became Maestro Giuseppe Carli's apprentice when he was 15. He worked on his first forcola two years later, and, five years after that, he carved what he considers to be the first "real forcola" of his own. (It takes about 20 hours to complete a forcola; you can learn about the process on the workshop's Web site address below.) Since then he estimates he has carved 2000 forcole and 3000 remi.

Just to put that in context: There are about 400 gondole operating in Venice. Each has one forcola and all are made to order. There are three workshops and four carvers in Venice, the only place in the world where this art is practiced.

Pastor takes only one apprentice at a time. Twenty-two-year-old Pietro Meneghini is the third. He also is a native Venetian with no other carvers in his family. He has been at the workshop for 2 1/2 years. When I asked the maestro how much longer this apprentice would need to be with him he said, "Twenty-five years."

It took me a minute — and I think it took Pietro a minute, too — to realize he was joking. His first apprentice, who worked with him for six years, now has his own shop and the next, who was with him for eight years, is now a gondiliere.

Young Pietro rows, too, although not competitively, either. And he enjoys woodworking in other forms; he proudly told me he built his bed to look like a stylized boat. Island people. He has found his calling in the maestro's shop and he hopes one day to open his own.

When I told the maestro I live in Hawai'i, he immediately wanted to know if we are concerned about what in Venice is called "acqua alta" — high water.

Island people.

"Certainly," I told him, "Tsunamis are a major concern in Hawai'i. We're out in the middle of the Pacific, unprotected. If, as in the worst-case scenarios, the ocean levels were to rise greatly and quickly, well, I suppose it would be disastrous," I said.

"We are at least somewhat protected," he said. "We have a chance of holding back the water. You do not."

Island talk.

I was fascinated by Le Fórcole and wrote a bit about it on my travel blog. This is a comment posted by an old friend: "I was tickled to learn about forcole. When I learn about something new, something that I had no idea even existed, I consider it a great day."

Me, too.

Le Fórcole is at Dorsoduro 341, Fondamenta Soranzo della Fornace in Venice. For more information about Maestro Saverio Pastor's work and workshop, go to www.forcole.com; and for more information about the gondola, its history, and its use in modern Venice, go to www.gondolavenezia.it.

This year marks the 700th anniversary of l'arte de' remeri — the art of the oar maker — and will be marked by events from August to October. Go to www.elfelze.com for information and a listing of events.