Tradition, craft, and culture

Pictured are Matthew “Marcello” Haynes, owner of La Gondola, Providence, which operates the WaterFire Providence gondolas, and Caleb Gross ’23, holding the oar he hand-crafted in homage to the makers of the traditional wooden oars plied by centuries of Venetian gondoliers. Photo by Nora Lewis

Caleb Gross ’23 graduated in December with a major in English (creative writing) and a minor in Italian. He also completed the URI Honors Program.

Born and raised in South Kingstown, R.I., a stone’s throw from the mouth of the Saugatucket River, Gross has spent much of his life working on local oyster farms. After high school, he took time to see the world and gain hands-on skills. As a student, he says he explored subjects that piqued his intellectual curiosity, admitting his college journey might be considered atypical.

Gross says that former Honors Program Director Lynne Derbyshire was an encouraging guide for him during his time at URI. “She became my unofficial advisor,” he says, adding that many honors classes and professors had an invaluable impact on his college career, citing professors Roy Bergstrom, Michelangelo La Luna, Heather Johnson, Talvikki Ansel, Vincent Colapietro, Hilary Emerson, as well as Daniel Petrin and Maria Mansella. “The honors courses I took at URI have been among the more interesting and stimulating courses I’ve taken,” Gross says.

It was in an Italian class taught by Professor La Luna that the seed for Gross’ honors capstone project was planted, which was a fitting academic coda for a life near water and wood.

During a homework assignment in the “Civilizations of Italy” class, a brief study of Italy’s Veneto region (of which Venice is the capital), Gross became enthralled—and concerned—with the disappearance of Venice’s gondolas, gondoliers, and the craftsmen that keep it all “afloat.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, 9,000 gondolas glided along the canals of Venice; today, there are only about 400. Something about that art and history spoke to Gross and he received enthusiastic support from Professor Heather Johnson who believed in Gross’ honors project and sponsored him. 

Passion Project

The goal of Gross’ project was to hand-build an oar that pays homage to the remèri of Venice, the makers of the traditional wooden oars plied by centuries of gondoliers. The hands-on project was followed by a short film he made detailing the experience of making a “remo.” He knew he could not produce a completely authentic remo or model of one. With only three authentic remèri left in the world today, he could not become a true craftsman in the time period needed to learn the craft as an “apprendista.”

Gross built the oar in the yard of his family home in Perryville with lumber sourced from Liberty Cedar in West Kingston. He brought a background in woodworking, as he studied and worked in the field of wooden boatbuilding from ages 19 to 23, under master shipwright Louis Sauzedde (Tips From a Shipwright).

“Ever since I was young, I’ve had a great fascination with wood, water, trees and history,” Gross says. “I have always been moved by the shapes that nature has to offer. I wanted to make a remo for the same reason that I wanted to study the Italian language. It is beautiful.”

Gross was also struck by how Venetian history connects to climate change and hopes his final piece will live as a symbol of beauty and tribute to the skill and craftsmanship of the remèri of Venezia.

“Tradition, craft, and culture won’t stay alive on their own,” he says. “I hope this project promotes curiosity in—and appreciation of—a woodworking tradition that is of global importance.”

—Kristen Curry