On the gray water of Venice’s Grand Canal, gondolas bob, speedboats slash, and a lone 1953 Mercedes 300SL Gullwing sputters along the waterway at 7 mph. It should be noted that the Mercedes in question is made almost entirely out of walnut and pine. Livio de Marchi, the creator and driver of the Mercedes, grips the maple steering wheel and pilots the car toward a swell, which swamps the front of the Gullwing. “I hope you can swim,” jokes de Marchi. “Don’t worry, I put Scotch tape over the cracks, and there are 800 kilos of wood in this car. It won’t sink.”
The buoyant Mercedes in which I am riding—to my pleasure and to the befuddlement of onlookers—is just one element in the wooden world that de Marchi has created. De Marchi, a graduate of the Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, is an Italian sculptor who specializes in woodwork. He has built wooden houses shaped like books, a wooden Vespa, and several water-bound automobile replicas, including the Mercedes, a Volkswagen Beetle, a Fiat Topolino, and a Ferrari F50 Spider. His work has appeared in museums worldwide, including the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Museum in St. Augustine, Fla., where the Fiat Topolino is displayed.
Lately, speedboats blasting through the Venetian canals have been blights on the city, as their wakes have threatened to erode foundations of historic buildings. De Marchi built cars like his canal-going Mercedes not merely as pieces of art but as alternative methods of transportation—and statements of protest against fast-moving, destructive craft—that produce far less wash than speedboats.
A Yamaha single-stroke engine, with a phut-phut cadence, powers the Mercedes’ propeller. The small engine limits the SL’s speed, and the car bobs more than thrusts forward, allowing the Mercedes to cruise while leaving the faintest of waves in its wake. “Look, look!” shouts de Marchi, pointing at a water taxi that zooms past. “There are no cars in Venice, but the canals are becoming like the autostrada. There is no peace anymore, and soon the wash will destroy the buildings.”
We putter past the Piazza San Marco, where a wary seagull, bobbing close by, creates a greater wake than the Mercedes. I sit back in the passenger seat and admire the perfectly crafted cherry air vents and the gleam of the wooden dashboard (unfortunately, there is no radio in the SL). De Marchi sculpted the walnut-and-pine exterior to match every detail of the car’s terra-firma counter-part, while shaping the underside of the Mercedes into a boatlike hull. He and two colleagues spent five months building the vehicle/vessel.
In midchannel, we swap places, but like a nervous father taking his son out for his first driving lesson, de Marchi is antsy in the passenger seat. At our docile rate, however, he does not have to worry about a high-speed accident. Even 3,100 deafening revs produce only a sluggish version of full ahead. On the canals of Venice, however, speed takes a backseat to style.
Livio de Marchi, +39.0415.285.694, www.liviodemarchi.com