Paolo Brandolisio and the art of oar and oarlock making

Paolo Brandolisio

Paolo Brandolisio - Venice Italy Artisan

Each city has its crafts, and one that is unique to Venice is the one of carving oars and oarlocks for gondolas. Yesterday I went to meet Paolo Brandolisio in his workshop, where he started working over 30 years ago.


When he was 16 he already knew he needed to work with his hands and went to the oar-maker Giuseppe Carli and asked him if he could practice and help at his workshop, and that's when his adventure started. Only four years later, Mr. Carli was forced to slow down and gradually quit his profession due to health reasons and told Paolo to continue the business. Paolo, still young, asked his 'maestro' if he thought he was ready and following a positive answer, he took the strength to carry on on his own.

Paolo Brandoliso Venice Italy Wood Artisan
Paolo Brandoliso - Venice Italy Wood Artisan

The workshop is a wonderful mess! Literally filled with vintage objects, work tools, biscuit tins, old radios, little statues and brushes. The light is warm and a veil of dust, produced by the ongoing cutting of wood, covers everything. Paolo's clients are mainly gondoliers and he was explaining how, like for gondolas, each oarlock (forcola) is made for its specific owner, based on his body features, like height and weight. Experience is key and it was nice to see him interact with his clients. While I was there we were interrupted by gondoliers at least three times, they just popped by to say hello, invite him out for lunch and the usual chit chat. I laughed with him because I told him how incredible it is that he works for boats that today are used only by the tourists, yet his clients are only locals!

Paolo Brandoliso Venice Italy Wood Artisan
Paolo Brandoliso Venice Italy Wood Artisan

Anyhow, he explained that for the forcole the wood implied is walnut, cherry or pear, thus woods that are hard, but not too hard, whereas for the oars it's ramin, an Indonesian wood now very difficult to find. Once upon a time, his trade was governed by what in the most serene Republic was called a 'mariegola', the Statute of professions that needed the approval of the Council of 10 and had very precise rules. It was (and still is) a physically heavy job and in the past, before all the machinery was invented, it involved lots of saws, axes and hatchets and the work was organised, like in the Arsenale, serially.

Paolo Brandoliso Venice Italy Wood Artisan
Paolo Brandoliso Venice Italy Wood Artisan

In addition to his main production, Paolo also makes beautiful bracelets and small objects, which would make the most exquisite and honest present from Venice! He is focused on his profession, thus he doesn't offer demonstrations for tourists or anything like that, he believes that it would distract him from his skill and would make him feel not exactly at ease. As a Venetian, I really appreciate that! I am so grateful for his kindness and availability and will immediately say that behind his initial roughness... I think there's a very kind heart!