The Gondola Maker by Laura Morelli – Review by Janet Walker

The setting sun casts a rosy glow over the buildings along Venice’s Grand Canal and I am sitting in a gondola, powered by a young, slim, Venetian gondolier.

Actually, I’m not; I am sitting in my garden reading Laura Morelli’s new historical novel, The Gondola Maker.

Set in 16th century Venice, other than boarding a time machine or a Boeing 747 it’s the next best thing to being there amidst the sights, sounds, aromas and historical streetscapes of this romantic exciting city.

Luca Vianello, the main character, is the eldest son of a gondola maker. A family business, generations of Vianellos have made gondolas, their expertise and skill, well known and sought after.

Luca, who will inherit the business, is expected to continue the gondola making tradition but there is a problem: Luca and his father, Domenico, do not get on – the father’s strict discipline and constant bullying is a bitter pill for a son, on the brink of self determination, to swallow.

Lucas’ sorrow at the death of his forty-four year old mother, Donatella, in childbirth turns to raging anger – the anger directed at his father, he blames Domenico for Donatella’s death, as after giving birth to Luca’s two siblings and suffering many miscarriages she was not strong enough to bear another child.

The fight that ensues between Luca and Domenico, violent, an accidental action of Luca’s results in a disaster of epic proportion – Luca, horrified by the unexpected consequence of his confrontation with Domenico must flee or face possible criminal charges by his father or the Council that governs La Republica of Venice.

Ashamed that his actions may have destroyed the family business, Luca, frightened and confused lives rough – starving, he appeals to a family friend, Signor Fumagalli, for help. Fumagalli, who runs Venice’s most successful oar making business directs Luca to a charity where he is fed and given the name of a business where he finds employment as a canal porter unloading crates from gondolas which deliver cargo around Venice’s waterways.

Luca works hard and is promoted to helping with deliveries. Under the watchful eye of a gondolier, he becomes skilled at rowing and steering gondolas.

The author, Laura Morelli, has chosen first person and present tense with Luca as narrator to tell the story and it works well, bringing an engaging freshness to the narrative’s centuries old setting.

The smell of varnish, paint, dampness and salty air which fills the Vianello family boatyard, the cries of street vendors and the camaraderie of gondoliers who use a secret language of hand signals to safely guide their boats through the crowded canal traffic are described with vivid, immediate detail.

Luca strikes it lucky and lands a job with a successful portrait painter, Trevisan. Employed as Trevisan’s boatman, Luca’s duties include delivering finished works of art to patrons.

Giuliana Zanchi, the stunningly beautiful daughter of a Venetian patrician family, visits Trevisan’s studio to have her portrait painted.

Luca sees her leaving the studio and his life changes; besotted by her exquisite loveliness, his every waking moment is filled with thoughts of Giuliana.

If only he could meet and speak with her, how wonderful that would be.

Luca reminds himself that even if this did happen, he could never reveal to Guiliana his true identity or tell her the secret behind the flight from his family home.

As it turns out Giuliana has a few secrets of her own.

She enlists Luca’s help in securing for herself an independent future; one which doesn’t include an arranged marriage or life in a nunnery, the only options open for women of the Venetian patrician class in the sixteenth century.

Giuliana’s willing slave, Luca, with no regard for his own safety, does whatever she requests – not a great idea but you have to remember: he’s crazy in love.

His association with Giuliana, discovered by the Venetian authorities, the future looks blacker than black for Luca.

Laura Morelli does though rescue Luca from his predicament and in some innovative exciting plot twists Luca is reunited with his family to begin a future life filled with infinite possibilities. Laura Morelli holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, where she was a Bass Writing Fellow and Mellon Doctoral Fellow.

She is especially interested in discovering and writing about craftspeople that pass on their skills and knowledge to the next generation.

Laura found time to answer questions about the writing and researching of The Gondola Maker:

Q1.  What period of time was spent on research before you put fingers to keyboard and began to tell Luca Vianello’s story?

The story of The Gondola Maker germinated inside my head while I was busy working on another book called Made in Italy. While I was writing Made in Italy, I traveled all over Italy, from the Alps to the islands, talking with contemporary artisans who still practice centuries-old traditions like Murano glass, Florentine leather, Sicilian ceramics, Roman gold smithing, and of course, Venetian gondolas.

Over and over, the extraordinary people I interviewed told me how important it was to pass the torch of tradition to the next generation.

I began to wonder what would happen—especially centuries ago—if the successor were not able… or willing. The character of the gondola maker and his son began to take shape in my head.

As I began to work on The Gondola Maker in earnest, it was an opportunity to take a deeper dive into the primary historical sources about the history of the gondola, the world of the guilds or arti, and Venetian boatmen in Renaissance Venice. I worked on The Gondola Maker, off and on, for seven years.

Q2.  Luca is a really appealing character, has he more stories to tell… is The Gondola Maker the start of a series featuring Vianello family members?

Characters do take on a life of their own, and sometimes they surprise you! Perhaps based on my training as an art historian, I enjoyed writing the painter Trevisan’s character, and would like to spend more time with him.

Q3.  What’s upcoming for you?

I am working on revised editions of my books, Made in Italy and Made in France, and am also writing a series of small guides that lead travelers to discover authentic arts in specific cities and regions of Europe.

Venice will be the first!

The Gondola Maker is much more than an exciting love story of two people from vastly different societal classes

Art historian, Laura Morelli has woven into the story of Luca’s life and love for Giuliana, a fascinating narrative of life in sixteenth century Venice, gondoliers, street vendors, the rich and poor residents of Venice all leap from the page, their joys and sorrows, an absorbing great read.

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