Beyond Glass Animals: Handicrafts in Venice

Medico della Peste (Plague Doctor) © Thomas Leplus
Medico della Peste (Plague Doctor) © Thomas Leplus

So you’ve seen the swirling, stormy paintings of Tintoretto, taken in the striking gold mosaics at St. Mark’s Basilica and perhaps even visited the glassblowers’ workshops on the island of Murano. But the art of the Venetian lagoon doesn’t begin and end with those staples of the typical tourist itinerary. Artisanal activities have long been essential elements of Venice, both economically and culturally, and are still abundant throughout the city.

With the help of some of our expert docents, we’ve rounded up three of our favorite forms of Venetian craftsmanship. Though some are more prevalent today than others, each of them is a testament to the city’s longstanding status as a center of refined, intricate, 100% handmade work.

Fórcole

Fórcola © Francesco Piasentin
Fórcola © Francesco Piasentin

Beyond the bold bridges and narrow, labyrinthine streets, one of the typical images that most visitors associate with Venice is the constant stream of boats and ferries meandering through the canals. Of course, the most iconic type of Venetian boat is the long and flat-bottomed gondola. Though they were once the city’s main method of transport, now they mostly take tourists on moonlit rides. But keep your eyes peeled when observing the various Venetian gondolas: in addition to the honeymooners and happy-go-lucky gondoliers, you may notice a curious structure jutting out from the side of the boat, usually near the stern. This is called a fórcola.

Fórcole are rowlocks or oarposts. Their particular construction allows the gondolier to make complicated maneuvers—as he glides through the water, he leans his oar against the fórcola in a variety of positions to steer the boat from A to B. This means the fórcola must provide several different leverage points along its form, hence the sinuous shape. The handcrafted wooden structures have evolved considerably over the centuries, with notable increases in thickness and sharpening of curves to maximize the momentum of the boats.

Venice docent Monica Vidoni highlighted the singularity of each fórcola. “Each one is unique, crafted for a particular type of boat and sometimes for the oarsmen themselves,” she explained, and there are only a few contemporary artisans left in the city who still specialize in carving fórcole by hand, customizing them for specific clients. Saverio Pastor’s workshop is one example; Pastor even occasionally crafts fórcole as freestanding sculptures.

Venetian metal casting

 

Nuns’ Bell Pull © Shoes on Wires
Nuns’ Bell Pull © Shoes on Wires

When asked to highlight an important but little-known Venetian art form, archaeologist and Context docent Matteo Gabbrielli mentioned metal casting. “This form of craftsmanship is no longer very well-known or popular among tourists. It involves creating precious decorations not only for monuments, but also for common, everyday objects, such as door handles and knobs,” he explained. In Venice there is only one remaining metal foundry—the one run by the historic Valese family—that still operates in the traditional way.

Venice explorers can get an idea of the passion-fueled, detail-oriented labor involved in metal casting simply by wandering around and keenly observing the city doors, which often have metal door handles and knobs with distinct, occasionally bizarre shapes. During strolls around the city, including our Cannaregio: The Neighborhood of Artists walk, Matteo often highlights or simply happens upon intricate heads and other forms. “It’s an art that is almost lost now, but you can see its rich past in the architecture of the city,” he explained, “so I am always excited for the chance to discuss it.”

Carnevale masks

Medico della Peste (Plague Doctor) © Thomas Leplus
Medico della Peste (Plague Doctor) © Thomas Leplus

The dizzying colors and festivities of Carnevale, an ongoing annual celebration leading up to the somber liturgical season of Lent, draw thousands of visitors to Venice every year. Sure, there are seasonal standards like music, confetti and distinct sweet treats but the most instantly recognizable element of the celebration is undoubtedly the trademark Venetian mask.

The origins of the mask are debated, with some scholars arguing that wearing them in public was a direct result of the rigid class system, putting everyone on a (seemingly) equal playing field. During Carnevale and other rowdy festivities, masks also served to conceal the identities of their wearers when they wanted to engage in particularly decadent activities.

Techniques and materials used for mask-making are quite varied and elaborate, as are the types of masks themselves. Though some are made with glass or porcelain, many contemporary masks are crafted with gesso and gold leaf application. Feathers, gems and other decorations are then added to the design. Even the fundamental shapes of the masks can vary dramatically. One of the strangest—with particularly interesting origins—is a type called the medico della peste, or “the plague doctor.” This mask model is known for its unique beak. It was not created to be a Carnevale mask but was rather a method of preventing the spread of epidemics.

As participants on our Venice Shopping walk often see, mask shops are practically inescapable in Venice, particularly during the Carnevale season but be sure to find the high-quality, handmade masks as opposed to the cheap imports. At certain exclusive boutiques, you can even customize a made-to-order mask that best fits your Carnevale alter-ego.

 

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