Venice is a city that runs on ancient and unwritten rules, including the one that gondolas are made and steered by men. But two young women are challenging that tradition. After their father died in 2018, sisters Elena and Elisabetta Tramontin inherited his workshop making the flat-bottomed boats that navigate the city’s famed canals, and the women are determined to keep the family business going. In an exclusive interview, they tell us their story and bring us closer to a Venetian tradition as old as time.
Meet Elena and Elisabetta Tramontin
GLH: Hello Elena. Hello Elisabetta. Thank you for taking the time to answer a few of our questions. For people who may not be familiar with your work yet, could you quickly introduce yourselves?
Elena Tramontin: We’re two sisters and we are the fifth generation of the Tramontin family. At the Squero Tramontin, we restore gondolas. We are passionate and motivated in everything we do and consider ourselves fortunate to have inherited such an incredible legacy.
GLH: Can you tell us more about your family’s history and your own journey that ultimately led you to this profession?
Elena Tramontin: Our great-great-grandfather, Domenico, founded the Squero on the 2nd of February 1884.
He was the one who made the last modification to the gondola, making it more asymmetrical. Then, to carry on with the legacy and the tradition, there were Giovanni, Nedis, and our father Roberto.
The Squero has always been a family place, and although we have never worked side by side with our father, it has always been a place where we spent time. And so, to continue with the family tradition was a natural choice because doing otherwise would have been like choosing not to live in the house we grew up in.
Today, I get to work together with my sister, and we are the first women to do this job.
GLH: And you decided to take over the family business, following in the footsteps of your father?
Elena Tramontin: We never worked with our father, and when he passed away we didn’t want the business to die with him. So, we took over the company. We wanted to keep this Venetian tradition alive, and to carry on this part of the city’s culture. When our father passed away, it was very hard for us because this was never just a job. It went far and beyond just a profession. It was his passion for him, so we had to keep it going.
GLH: Since you never worked with your father, how did you learn the trade?
Elena Tramontin: We have been learning on the go. For now, we’re only doing repairs and trying to understand as much of the work as possible. Obviously, our ultimate goal is to build a full gondola soon. We don’t know yet when that might be possible, but that’s what we are working towards.
We found our father’s notebook with all his secrets, and we are driven to keep the legacy alive, and to make our family proud. It’s not easy, but we always thought that if it’s not easy, then it’s just not fun!
GLH: And what were you doing before this?
Elena Tramontin: I used to be a photographer and I had a store in Venice where I would reuse the parts of gondolas to make jewelry, and such… My sister went to art school.
Today, with my sister, we restore gondolas to keep the family business alive. Elisabetta is in charge of scheduling the things we have to do because she knows more about the business and she knows how to work on the boat. She is also more apt at the physical labour and techniques. I am more in charge of public relations; I organise the visits to show the real life of the artisans of Venice.
GLH: And how many people do this job in Venice?
Elena Tramontin: There are only a few squero in Venice, about 4, but it is not a competition. The squero is more a Venetian tradition, and there are no other squeros in the world. In Venice there are about 5,000 gondolas, more or less.
There were about 10,000 a few years ago because back then, gondolas were used all around the city, for all sorts of jobs and transportation.
GLH: It is said that the harmonious shape of your gondolas can be compared to Ferraris, how do you feel about such a comparison?
Elena Tramontin: To make a gondola, we use 8 different types of wood. Each wood has its own characteristics, reacts differently and is used differently.
For example, the front of the gondola is made of mahogany because it is resistant. Then we work with walnut because it is flexible, and it’s easier for us to shape it into the form that we want. Then the parts that don’t move are made of cherry wood and the underwater parts are made of oak. The end part is made of melese or fir.
My sister and I both work the squero, and we work on the gondolas with our own hands. There is an independent craftsman who makes the forcola and the oar, then there are other craftsmen who make the decorations, the clothing of the gondola, the gold that is put on it and so on. And then there are also those who work the iron at the front of the gongola. It’s really a team effort!
We can work on one or two gondolas at a time per month, and the repairs can take up to three weeks.
GLH: And how do you feel about passing this craft onto the future generations ?
Elena Tramontin: We hope to continue doing what we do, to promote it and be proud of it, but for us it’s natural. It’s our family history and it’s more than just a job… It’s our home!
For more exclusive interviews, stay tuned!