A Brief History of Squero di San Trovaso in Venice
What is Squero di San Trovaso?
Squero di San Trovaso is a working shipyard that was founded in the 17th century and builds traditional gondolas (flat-bottomed rowing boats) that are used to navigate Venice’s canals.
Squero di San Trovaso History
In the 18th century, Venice had 45 private shipyards, known as squeri. They were the last remnants of the heyday of shipbuilding in Venice, when many vessels were manufactured locally in workshops. Surveying the monumental, printed map of Jacopo de’ Barbari from 1500, it’s easy to spot several such shipyards, basically consisting of a wooden boathouse, a warehouse, and an open space used to repair or caulk vessels (the process of making them watertight). Private shipyards were complementary to the Arsenale, which in turn was tasked with manufacturing the vessels owned and paid for by the state. Privately-owned ships were normally built in the squeri, as well as the thousands of less seaworthy vessels used for transport across Venice.
The shipyard itself dates from the 17th century. It has a characteristically alpine style, since shipwrights and carpenters (known in Venetian as squeraroli and marangoni) normally came from Cadore, the woodland region now more commonly known as the Dolomites, and for its ski resorts. The wooden structure is distinctive and reminds passersby of a mountain dwelling. Venetian private shipyards had a characteristic structure: a square surrounded by wooden buildings, whose upper floors were normally occupied by the carpenter’s family, while the lower ones served as warehouses and workshops. There would be an open space bordering with the river or sea, and a slipway to haul and launch boats.
The process of shipbuilding was laborious and normally entailed the collaboration of various artisans. For instance, the remeri (or oars makers) were an important guild in medieval Venice, as well as the calafati (or caulkers) and the cordaroli (or rope makers). Wood was sent by water to Venice from Cadore, as Venice formally annexed the region in 1420. This commerce was so important that today the area close to San Trovaso is still called Zattere (Venetian for ‘wooden rafts’). Log driving was the technique used at the time: logs four to six metres long were bound together and sent downstream, along the Piave River. Here they would have been cut into lumbers, and used to craft ships.
One such vessel that’s been constructed here for centuries is the famous gondola, flat-bottomed rowing boats of ancient origin that retain the form they’ve had for hundreds of years. In a city full of elaborate decoration and colour, it might come as a surprise to see that gondolas are all rather subdued in appearance. In fact, the boats have been painted black since the 16th century, when a law was passed to help minimise the rivalry between competing noble Venetian families (all of whom had their own private gondola). 10,000 gondolas once navigated the canals of 16th-century Venice, but today it’s solely tourism that sustains the city’s modest fleet.
The Squero di San Trovaso is amongst the last surviving examples of this centuries-old tradition. Over the years, the squero has inspired the work of artists (particularly in the 19th century), such as the painter Antonietta Brandeis, the Spanish artist Rafael Senet y Perez and the Frenchman Jules-Romain Joyant. It’s still used as a shipyard of gondolas, and can be visited by arrangement.
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