A Bug's Life

UPDATED 11/01/1999 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/01/1999 at 01:00 AM EST

Ten years ago, Livio De Marchi and his son Mattia set out for a leisurely cruise in their row-boat on the waterways of Venice. But when they reached the mouth of the Grand Canal, lined with spectacular palaces dating from the Italian Renaissance, they hit a traffic jam. And not just gondolas—the channel was clogged with ferries, water taxis and motorboats spewing exhaust and making a racket. "This isn't a canal, it's a highway," De Marchi recalls saying. "And you need a car, not a boat."

Now, De Marchi has a vessel that's unique in all of Venice. The 56-year-old sculptor plies the waters in a floating bug—a convertible Volkswagen Beetle, that is, made of pine and walnut and propelled by a 10-horse-power inboard motor (housed in the trunk, just like the real thing). His shipshape creation comes complete with rearview mirrors, roll-down-window handles, headlights and tail-lights. Best of all, it doesn't make waves: The 1,500-pound, 1964-model VW replica chugs along quietly at a mere 5 miles per hour.

The Beetle boat is just the latest in a line of whimsical, seaworthy sculptures De Marchi has created to protest the growing flotilla of big, fast boats that he—along with many other Venetians—says is polluting and crowding the ancient city's fragile waterways. His work has made him something of a local celebrity—a status that De Marchi, who with his tilted hat and handlebar mustache is a dead ringer for Salvador Dali, doesn't seem to mind. "For me, these boats are like bath toys. Making them is like a game," says De Marchi, who is often greeted with shouts of "Ciao, Livio!" as he cruises the canals. "The work comes out well when you do it for love, not just for money."

One of five children, De Marchi grew up poor after his father lost his food-store chain during World War II. He liked to swim in the Venetian canals and says he was always "playing with wood, carving something out of sticks." He remembers the wooden angel above his bed—and the day his mother was forced to use it for firewood. ("I was shocked. But the poor woman had to do it. We had to eat.") At 12, he apprenticed with Venetian wood-worker Vittorio Biasotto; he began sculpting his own creations at 20. The early carvings were angst-ridden figures reminiscent of Edvard Munch's The Scream ("I was in a bad way then, full of anguish"). But Biasotto, he says, "gave me faith in myself. Then my humorous side came out—slowly, very slowly."

Tourists who visit De Marchi's crowded gallery-workshop in the heart of the city can shell out any-where from $5,500 to nearly $9,000 for a carved chair with a base of asparagus stalks, a wooden trench coat with buttons, belt and folds that looks as if it could be taken right off its hanger—even a pair of pinewood boxer shorts. De Marchi works with Mattia, 23 (he also has a daughter, Elizabetta, 33), and his second wife, Mieko, 50, who handles the business side and deals with clients in the U.S., Germany and Japan.

But what really drive De Marchi's imagination are his floating cars, which require painstaking measurements of the originals and plenty of patience, since each can take a year to complete. (One example of his work, a carved Fiat Topolino, is on display at a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum in Branson, Mo.) And when he takes them out for a watery spin, De Marchi is always careful to heed the rules of the road. During Venice's annual carnival celebration last spring, for instance, he was tooling around the Grand Canal when he floated by an American opera singer aboard a gondola. She waved and offered him a glass of champagne. "Thank you very much," De Marchi replied, "but I can't drink and drive!"

Paula Chin
Sarah Delaney in Venice

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