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Things to do in Italy | Packabook

The Gondola Maker – A book set in Venice


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Amazingly, despite two trips to Venice in my lifetime, I have never ridden in a gondola. This is something I will have to remedy after my latest read.

Laura Morelli’s The Gondola Maker takes us to 16th century Venice and the world of its craftsmen and water workers. Luca Vianello, who comes from a family of gondola makers, is forced to flee his home after a family quarrel and accident, and soon finds himself working as a boatman for a painter. Luca becomes entranced by a woman he sees in one of his master’s paintings, and while she is well out of his class, tries to find ways to meet her.

Morelli obviously has a great deal of knowledge about this time in Venice and the daily life of artisans like Luca. She reveals fascinating detail about the process of gondola making, as well as other crafts, while giving us a window into Venetian life; especially that of the often unscrupulous boatmen!

While the novel starts in a (literal) blaze when a gondola is deliberately set on fire to punish a boatman who has earned the disapproval of the city’s rulers, I found the following few chapters slower than I would have liked. Morelli becomes a little bogged down in the detail and not much happens until Chapter 5. But if you can persevere past this point, you will be part of a gently flowing story that takes us from teeming ferry stations filled with crates of chickens, to the palaces of the wealthy, and of course the canals – those highways upon which the boatmen ply their trade.

Venice is a popular location for many fiction writers, and there is much we can learn about the city from its novels. So let’s take a look at what parts of Venice we can explore with The Gondola Maker by our side.

Base yourself in Cannaregio

The oarmaker’s shop sits on a high embankment above the Sacca della Misericordia, the basin on the north side of Cannaregio, which affords an expansive view onto the canal and beyond to the island of Murano… These apprentices have the pleasure of watching boats pass while they work, and even glimpse naval ships in the distance headed to Corfu and Cyprus.” (Loc 387)

Cannaregio - VeniceCannaregio, Venice – Image courtesy of Matthew Black via Flickr

Luca’s family squero – or boatyard – is in Cannaregio, the most northern of Venice’s six historic districts. Traditionally a working class and manufacturing area, today, it maintains its working-class nature and is a welcome respite from the more tourist-driven areas of the city.  Many feel Cannaregio is one of Venice’s ‘hidden gems’, allowing visitors to see how ordinary Venetians live, while still providing bars and restaurants aplenty. And in less than half an hour, you’ll be able to walk to San Marco. These comments on Trip Advisor are typical of those who say they have discovered the “real Venice”.

“A walk through Cannaregio enables visitors to see and sense another aspect of Venice, away from the the tourist trail. The whole atmosphere of the area is tranquil and seemingly locked away in its own world.”

“Cannaregio as a whole has an authentic Venetian atmosphere and the canals are “living” waterways, bustling with commercial traffic all day long. At night it is quieter but with some great restaurants and a peaceful feel to the evenings.”

“Had an apartment for 6 nights in Cannaregio, right on a quiet canal. Wonderful area, quiet, with great restaurants and cafes, beautiful churches, and no cruise ship crowds.”

And this article in the Guardian is glowing with praise for Cannaregio. 

You can even stay in a former squero…

In spite of its renown, the Squero Vianello, our family boatyard, is little more than a haphazard conglomeration of buildings surrounding a boat ramp. Its three structures – the workshop, the storehouse, and our home – have been standing longer than anyone remembers.” (Loc 237)

Venice squeroVenice Squero – Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

To really put you in The Gondola Maker mood, why not stay in a former squero when you are in Venice. Allo Squero is a bed and breakfast in Cannaregio, with a garden which was a former shipyard. There’s no reason not to pretend you are staying in Luca’s family squero. We’re allowed those sorts of flights of fancy at Packabook!

Allo Squero gets some great reviews.

Wander along the Misericordia

I decide to travel the quayside of the Misericordia canal, observing the variety of boats docked there as I walk: rowboats covered with tarps, several plainly outfitted gondolas, and many rafts.” (Loc 457)”

Cannaregio - VeniceThe Misericordia Canal, Cannaregio, Venice – Image courtesy of Eric Salard via Wikimedia Commons

The Fondamenta Misericordia, is the street running alongside the Misericordia canal, and it’s a fabulous spot for small restaurants and bars as well as carpenters, boat repairers and sculptors.

A favourite restaurant for many is the Trattoria Misericordia, especially if you are a lover of seafood. Take a seat, enjoy the meal, watch the traffic on the canal and think back to Luca’s own walk along this little piece of Venice.

Admire the ceiling in the The Church of Sant’Alvise

I know I am close when I reach the church of Sant’Alvise and begin to hear the ringing sound of hammering on metal. Members of the blacksmith’s guild, including the family of Annalisa Bonfante, cluster in the streets surrounding the squat old church.” (Loc 421)

Church of Sant’AlviseChurch of Sant’Alvise, Cannaregio, Venice – Image courtesy of Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons

This is the church near where Luca’s betrothed, Annalisa, lives with her family and their blacksmith foundry. And it may be a “squat old church” (even in Luca’s time), but it has a ceiling that attracts people from all over the world as well as three paintings by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo a prolific, and highly successful 18th century painter and craftsman.

Visit the site of the world’s first Jewish ghetto

I scan the room for someone wearing the kind of red hat that Jews are required by law to wear in order to identify themselves, but I do not see one. I wonder why there is a Jew out at this hour at all and can only guess that his status must be special enough to allow him dispensation from the curfew that requires Jews to be in their homes inside the ghetto after nightfall. I imagine their dark eyes peering out from behind iron gates in their neighborhood in Cannaregio, not far from where I was born.” (Loc 2238)

Jewish Ghetto, VeniceJewish Ghetto, Cannaregio, Venice – Image courtesy of Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons

Like so many other places in Europe at the time, Jews in Venice suffered from anti-semitism which saw their movements, work and dress regulated. In 1516 the rulers of Venice decided to confine Jews to a particular area, creating the world’s first ghetto. Residents were only allowed to leave the ghetto during the day, and were locked in at night. Today the ghetto remains a centre of Jewish culture, education and worship.

It is well worth a visit to the Museo Ebraico where you can buy a ticket for a guided tour of three of the five synagogues (very difficult to find on your own), the best way to fully understand the history of this tiny and unique part of Venice. After the tour, wander around the antique shops, bakeries and cafes and enjoy one of the most tranquil areas of the city.

Read more about what visitors think here.

But what about the gondolas?

Beyond, a cluster of mooring posts painted with red and black spirals stands just off the ramp in the water, marking the entrance to the squero. In the summer, we take frequent leave of our work to walk down the ramp and splash our faces with cool canal water.” (Loc 270)

San Trovaso Squero, VeniceSquero San Trovaso, Venice – Image courtesy of Didier Descouens via Wikimedia Commons

So far we have not moved from Cannaregio, there is so much to see there. But we will have to move out of this district to Dorsoduro if we are going to find the two remaining working squeri in central Venice where you can see gondola makers at work.

Squero San Trovaso – While there are no formal tours of this squero, the gondola makers don’t mind you watching them work from across the canal, and it seems lots of people like to take this opportunity. If you have a group of 25 or more, then you might be able to arrange a visit, but the owners tell me it is not always possible.

Tramontin and Figli – Again, it appears to be possible to visit this squero as part of a large group, though it’s fairly pricey.

You could also try Oltrex tours which is based in the Hotel Daniele  just off Piazza San Marco. They apparently do a two-hour tour to a gondola workshop, though it’s not clear which one.

Like so many novels, The Gondola Maker gives us an insight into a world very different from our own AND provides some great clues to encourage us to visit parts of a city we might otherwise ignore. The plot is not complex or overly-compelling, but the gentle storyline combined with the wealth of detail and atmosphere makes this a worthy read for anyone considering a trip to Venice in the future – it will most certainly add to your experience there.

And I’m now actually pleased I have not yet ridden in a gondola – because when I do, I will be taking a lot more notice of the craft involved than I would have done before coming across this book. Have a read, and I’m sure you will do the same.


Italy Book Tours Logo jpeg 225 pixelsP.S. I received a complimentary copy of The Gondola Maker from iRead Book Tours in exchange for an honest opinion of the book. This review is part of a Book Tour around several blogs, so I highly recommend you read the views of other bloggers by following the tour schedule here – this gives you a great all-round view of the novel.

If you are still hankering for more books set in Italy, you’ll find many more to choose from here!

Disclosure Policy If you click on the links in the posts to buy books, then I will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and I am grateful for your support. Every little bit helps! Thank you. (Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk)

‘The Imperfectionists’ – A book set in Rome, and some insider secrets from the author…

UPDATE:  It seems we’re not the only ones to enjoy this book. Brad Pitt’s film company has just bought the movie rights…Well done Mr Rachman!

Tom Rachman’s Rome-based novel ‘The Imperfectionists’ is starting to attract a lot of attention now it has been released in the U.S, but despite his hectic promotion schedule, Rachman has agreed to share with us a few of his secrets and recommendations for your next visit to the Eternal City.

The novel is based around a fading English language newspaper. Chapter by chapter we are introduced to eleven characters who all have some kind of involvement with the paper – from its editor, to foreign correspondents, an obsessive sub-editor, and even the obituary writer. They all depend on the paper in some way, even if their private lives are falling apart and their futures look uncertain.

The characters are extremely well-drawn and the style of the novel means we have to get to know them pretty much instantly – but they are some wonderful people to become acquainted with. It would be a challenge to name my favourite, but I’d probably end up tossing a coin between poor old hardworking news editor Menzies and the foreign correspondent from hell, Rich Snyder (really, you have to read the novel for yourself – I couldn’t possibly describe how obnoxious this man is!) .

My only complaint…I want to know more. As you get to the end of a chapter, you know it may very well be the last you see of that character, and it is with a bit of a sad heart that you turn the page to meet the next one. Each and every one of them would be worthy of a book in their own right, and I suppose we will just have to wait and see whether Rachman will bring any of them back in future novels.

From a Packabook perspective, at about half way through the novel I was worried we weren’t going to see as much of Rome as I would have liked, but in the second half there were lots of glimpses of the city. From the garden bar at the Hotel de Russie to the Piazza San Salvatore and the narrow sidewalks that follow the Tiber. For someone who is about to travel to the city, this would be a great read to take with you.

Let’s hear a bit more about Rome from our chat with Canadian-raised Rachman who first fell in love with Italy on a family holiday when he was 12, and was dispatched there as a journalist when he was 28. These days, he shares his time between Rome and London…..

Packabook – “What made you decide to set the novel in Rome?”
Rachman – I suppose because I knew the city well — it existed in my imagination, although I wrote the book when living in Paris. Also, I wanted to write about the life of the expat. I have been one for many years and find its culture amusing and intriguing. A novel about journalists living abroad seemed to fit the bill!

Packabook – “How did you choose the particular locations you did?”
Rachman – The characters all live in different areas of the city — Trastevere, Monteverde, Testaccio and so on. Those who know Rome will recognize that these are quarters where expats live. Certain locations come from my life there — in particular, when a character is described as wandering down particular streets, you can bet that these are routes I myself have often strolled.

Packabook – “What are the top three must-dos for someone travelling to Rome?”
Rachman – It’s such a visited city that it’s hard to answer this without sounding like the first page of any tourist guide. But here goes: 1) I continue to find the Colosseum and the Forum astonishing and worthwhile; 2) the Vatican and its museum offer another still-influential layer of Italian culture; and 3) most important of all, in my view, I suggest that people walk and walk and walk. Within the centre of town, one finds a network of the most stunning, opulent, decadent alleys and palazzi. Simply wandering and admiring the surroundings is perhaps my greatest pleasure in Rome.

Packabook – “And how about one that is really off the beaten track? A hidden secret?”
Rachman – Chiostro del Bramante, a museum near Piazza Navona, contains a marvellous upstairs cafe hidden within gorgeous cloisters and frescoes. For some reason, despite its central location, the cafe is typically empty. Make sure you sit outside on the tiny seats nestled in the cloisters themselves. A delightful spot for a cool drink away from the tourist-clogged squares of central Rome during the summer.

Packabook- “Any other favourite cafes or restaurants you recommend?”
Rachman – Caffe Doria, on the ground floor of the Doria Pamphilj Gallery, makes superb coffee and offers wonderful service, which cannot be said of many bars and eateries in the city. For traditional Roman cuisine, eat at La Matricianella; for a charming (if pricey) lunch spot, try Casa Bleve.

Packbook – “Any thoughts on where you will set your next novel?”
Rachman – Yes, but I’m afraid I can’t say — I’m a bit secretive about my writing when I’m in the middle of it. Suffice to say that this one will be international, too!

Thanks Tom for your suggestions, and we look forward to where that next novel will take us! In the meantime, grab yourself a copy of ‘The Imperfectionists’ and imagine you are reading it in the beautiful garden bar of the Hotel de Russie…


P.S. Why not head over to Packabook’s main site to find yourself some more books set in Italy and immerse yourself in some other wonderful Rome-based novels.


Disclosure Policy If you click on the links in the posts to buy books, then I will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and I am grateful for your support. Every little bit helps! Thank you. (Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk)
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Please note - if you read our reviews and click on our links to buy books, we will receive a tiny commission for referring you. This does not affect the price you pay for the books, and we thank you for your support! Packabook is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk