Besides food on my dining room table, in my Venice apartment there sits a forcola.
What is a forcola, you might ask? (Unless you are Greg Mohr, of course.) A forcola is the wooden oar lock, or the thingy that the gondolier or rower leans his oar against in order to row in different directions. A forcola has a graceful curve to it and a little hooked mouth, creating different spaces to place the oar.
Our forcola we purchased from a gondolier named Giorgio. “I give a part of my heart to you,” he said in Italian and gestured with his hands as if he removed that organ and handed it to me. He told us it has been in his family for three generations (so we’re guessing it may be up to 150 years old). It has areas on it blackened from the oar rubbing against it, and one elbow is banged up where, Giorgio told us, it had bumped into other gondolas or walls over the years. It also has a crack that runs nearly through its bottom. I’m not sure how it’s held together right now because there’s no evidence of glue or nails, but it feels quite sturdy. Its base, the part that fits down into the side of the gondola, has bits of wood added to it. Apparently the forcola is so old that it was made for an older gondola that had a different fitting, and Giorgio’s newer gondola didn’t hold the forcola tightly enough without these wedges to secure it in place.
All these so-called imperfections, Giorgio said, meant he couldn’t sell it to a museum. Lucky us! He said, “This forcola has a story.” All the better.
There are very few forcola makers left in the world, less than a handful I believe. One is Paolo Brandolisio, who keeps a workshop near San Provolo in Venice. But this forcola was apparently made way before he was born. We might carry it to him to see what else he can tell us. Maybe he’ll know if it was made by the master who trained him. Giorgio had checked to see if the year was carved on the side, as it often is, but that and any signature were worn away. Our forcola is silent, though it must have such stories to tell.
As we walked home after purchasing it, we passed a shop that makes models of Venetian boats and accouterments. As we peered through the window at the forcole inside, the owner came out. “We just bought a forcola,” I told him, and he inspected it. He asked what we paid and said we got a good deal. He never asked why we, a couple Americans, bought it. He already knew it’s a piece of Venice’s heart.