One of the pleasures of speaking about one’s books is the opportunity not only to meet readers, but other writers. Laura Morelli came to hear me speak about John Ruskin and Venice as portrayed in Light, Descending, and from thence a lovely new friendship was formed. I can heartily recommend The Gondola Maker, Laura’s historical novel about Venice; see my Goodreads review of it. Laura came to fiction by a fascinating route, inspired by her art historian scholarship, and as a follow-on to her many non-fiction shopping guides for travellers searching for authentic mementos. Here she shares how she became interested in Venice and the many stories it reveals – and conceals.
I am traditionally trained as an art historian, and studied the great artists of the past: Michelangelo, da Vinci, and many others. However, once I realized the importance of living artisanal traditions within Italian culture, I was riveted; I wanted to know everything! It was the beginning of a journey that would take me from the Alps to Palermo, and become my obsession for more than a decade. Over the course of my fieldwork, it was the stories and the people behind these great traditions that captivated me.
The story of The Gondola Maker developed while I was working on another book called Made in Italy. The living artisans I interviewed, whether makers of gondolas, carnival masks, or Murano glass, told me how important it was to them to pass on the torch of tradition to the next generation. After hearing that story over and over, I began to wonder what would happen if the successor were not able or willing to take on the duty of passing on his father’s trade. As I interviewed the last remaining gondola makers of Venice, the story of The Gondola Maker, my first work of fiction, germinated inside my head. I wondered about the strict social codes that had once bound boatmakers together in pre-industrial Venice, and what might happen if someone went against the grain.
The Gondola Maker follows the story of a young man named Luca Vianello, who, as the eldest son, positioned to inherit one of the city’s most esteemed gondola-making boatyards. But because of his complicated relationship with his father, not to mention an unexpected family tragedy in the boatyard, Luca believes that his destiny lies elsewhere. Soon he finds himself drawn to restore an antique gondola with the dream of taking a girl for a ride.
I have been fortunate to live in Italy and to travel all over the country, but Venice holds a special place in my heart. If you described Venice to someone who had no prior knowledge of it, they might think you were making it up. It’s mind-boggling to think that the entire built environment of Venice–everything from the humblest coffee shop to the grandest church–stands atop thousands of wooden pilings driven into the mud centuries ago. The city has been described as “impossible,” and I think that’s a good way to capture its essence.
Laura Morelli holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale University, where she was a Bass Writing Fellow and Mellon Doctoral Fellow. She authored a column for National Geographic Traveler called “The Genuine Article” and has been featured on CNN Radio, Travel Today with Peter Greenberg, The Frommers Travel Show, and in USA TODAY. She has also written and produced art history lessons for TED-Ed and has taught college-level art history in the U.S. and in Italy. Laura is the author of the Authentic Arts guidebook series, and is well-known for her travel series that includes Made in Italy and Made in France. The Gondola Maker, a coming-of-age story about the heir to a gondola boatyard in 16th-century Venice, is her award-winning historical novel. Sign up for Laura’s newsletter at lauramorelli.com.