The Arsenal of Venice (Arsenale di Venezia), was the heart of the Venetian naval industry from the 13th century, generating much of the city’s economic wealth and power; that lasted until the fall of the Serenissima to Napoleon’s conquest of the area in 1797.
History and Development of the Arsenal of Venice. Venice through the centuries, was able to control the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea; in order to safeguard the economic interest of the state and its merchants and then later to compete with the Turks for the control of the Aegean and the Adriatic. The Arsenal first started as a municipal facility, for the storage and preservation of materials for commercial vessels, followed by many successive expansions during the 14th to 16th centuries of docks and facilities to produce larger ships; for the expansion of merchant trade throughout the Mediterranean and for military purposes. The latter was essential to protect the Republics interests in the Eastern Mediterranean; after the fall of Byzantium and rise of Turkish aggression and the development of its own fleet.
The Arsenal also stored a large military reserve of both finished and in “component form” ships; ready to go in a few days. Commercial vessels, could also be equipped with arms and be claimed and deployed immediately in preparation for war.
The origins of the Arsenal date from around 1150 to 1200, with the first official document referring to it being dated 1220. The original nucleus of the site was called the “Arsenale Vecchio” (Old Arsenal); a land dock linked to the southern lagoon by single canal.
It was also mentioned in Dante’s poem “Inferno” in the 14th century. Over time, the area was enlarged eight times, with the last extension in 1916. It encompasses now, a total surface of approximately 46 ha.
The Arsenal was subdivided into different areas, where each produced a particular prefabricated ship part or other maritime components, such as armaments, munitions and rope. Incredibly, these parts could then be assembled into a ship in as little time as one day.
Parts of the site were destroyed twice in 1440 and 1568, by explosions in the gunpowder warehouses.
In the pre-industrial economy, the Arsenal is the most important example of a large production complex with a centralised structure. Every step in the production process was under its control. For example, the Arsenal’s navy even owned its own forest, in the Montello hills area of the Veneto; to secure its supply of wood.
Its workforce, known as “Arsenalotti”, were well respected citizens and normally averaged about 1500 to 2000 persons, increasing significantly up to between 4500-5000; during periods of high production activity. High walls shielded the Arsenal and its workforce from public view and its perimeter was guarded.
To most tourists, the high walls tend to hide its history and even more so; its recent transformation. There are however, opportunities to get inside the Arsenal, such as visiting the Biennale exhibition, or purchasing tickets for guided tours.
The spacious rooms of the rope factory are currently used as one of the venues of the Venice Biennale, as well as some of the activities of small boat building and other minor activities.
The 19th century brought major adaptions to the Arsenal, not only to the functional aspects; but also, with regard to the appearance of the complex.
Venice was already in decline and was not in a position to meet the needs of modern shipbuilding. The fall of the Republic to Napoleonic forces, brought about a period of political instability; through successive French, Austrian and Italian domination and control.
The industrial revolution heralded the introduction of iron hulled vessels and steam power, replacing timber and sail. Vessels were getting bigger and in the military field, there were significant developments in armaments. Following the Veneto’s annexation to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866, it was decided that Venice would have to maintain the role of maritime military garrison of great importance.
Production sites, shelter and maintenance of vessels naturally had to adapt to these changes. Significant visual evidence of this updating process was seen, with larger facilities, updated equipment and the introduction of lifting machinery: cranes in factories, warehouses and of various sizes on the docks.
Origin of the name
The term “arsenale“, in use in modern Italian, comes from the Arabic Daras-sina’ah, meaning “house of industry”. The term, known to the Venetians through their frequent commercial contacts with the Orient, would be passed to the Venetian “darzanà“, later corrupted over time in the form “arzana“; also mentioned in Dante’s Inferno. It then was further modified through “arzanàl” and “arsenal“, to its final form of “arsenale“.
The term “darzanà” and then “darsena” has remained to indicate the Arsenal as a “dock on an inland waterway“.
The Porta di Terra (Southern Land Gate)
The southern “land entrance” of the Arsenal, is known as the “Porta di Terra.”
With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and the subsequent Turkish threat in the Mediterranean, the monumental Porta di Terra was erected in 1460. This and the two towers that flank the water entrance, alluded to the role of Venice as a bulwark of Christianity. It was the first Classical revival structure built in Venice.
High above the door, there is a statue of Santa Giustina, placed after the victory of the Battle of Lepanto battle in 1571. Above the entrance is the iconic winged Lion of Venice, displaying a closed book; signifying the state at war. Here, this alludes to the “war machine” hidden behind the gates.
The gate is adorned with eight allegorical statues representing: Wealth, Guard, the goddess Bellona, Neptune, Mars and Justice; whilst the last two statues have not been accredited.
Entering through the gates, you are in Command Square and from here you enter to the Historical Library and the Institute of Military Maritime Studies of Venice.
Two lions guarding the gates were taken from Greece, as part of Morosini’s war booty, were added in 1687. On both sides of one of the lions, known as the “Piraeus Lion”, can be seen the mysterious eroded runic inscriptions; carved in it by Scandinavian mercenaries, hired by Byzantines during the 11th century.
Translated they are said to read as below:
Lion’s right side: “Asmund cut these runes with Asgeir and Thorleif, Thord and Ivar, at the request of Harold the Tall, though the Greeks considered about and forbade it”.
Lion’s left side: “Hakon with Ulf and Asmund and Örn conquered this port. These men and Harold Hafi imposed a heavy fine on account of the revolt of the Greek people. Dalk is detained captive in far lands. Egil is gone on an expedition with Ragnar into Romania and Armenia”.
The internal organisation of the Arsenal had a strict hierarchical structure; divided into administrative and technical functions.
Administrating and controlling controlling the entire production system was a special Judiciary, consisting of three Arsenal providers, who were members of the Senate and three patrons, selected by the members of the Great Council.
The technical and industrial side, was run by the Great Admiral, who was appointed from the most highly qualified group of technical workers, called protomaestri (master builders). They were responsible for the quality and final inspection of finished ships.
The top-down hierarchical structure included: protomaestri, captains, proti, marangoni (carpenters), shipwrights, remeri (oar workers), alboranti (mainmast workers), blacksmiths, board cutters, mureri, sawyers and saltpetre workers.
Workers were preferentially selected from young people, who could benefit from an internal schooling; such as dockyard workers’ sons or young people from charitable institutions.
Arsenalotti were entrusted to particular positions of trust: in addition to the Arsenal Guard, the Doge’s palace Guard and the Grand Council Guard; they were placed to guard the Mint and the Treasury in San Marco.
The Arsenalotti worked from dawn to dusk, with a break for lunch; the salaries were not very high, but they were able to enjoy many benefits, such as special bonuses, ancillary benefits, free housing for employees and leaders workers and donations of wine. They were however, not only specialised in the construction of ships, but also of trades taking care of armaments, gunpowder and rope.
In moments of inactivity, especially during the summer when the fleet was at sea, the Arsenalotti were employed as firefighters. In wartime, the Arsenalotti formed the backbone of the Venetian navy and often were ranked as non-commissioned officers.
The providers could house the workers in accommodation (Arsenal’s property) located outside the walls. You can still find signs that indicated the residence of sector’s leaders, or in specific areas in which a particular type of trade workers were housed.
It is surprising to understand that even at the beginning of the 14th century, the Arsenal had reached levels of organisation and production out of the ordinary for the time. The Venetian Arsenal’s ability to mass-produce galleys on an assembly-line process, was unique for its time and resulted in possibly the single largest industrial complex in Europe, prior to the Industrial Revolution.
Military Zone to Multipurpose Site
After World War I, the Arsenal became an Italian military zone.
In 2013, part of the site was transferred from the Italian government to the city of Venice. The Italian military still occupies 41% of the area and houses the technical and logistical command centre for the Adriatic Sea; as well as the Naval War College and a library.
The city of Venice created the Ufficio Arsenale, to define the future strategy and the redevelopment and promotion of the site. In the meantime, parts of the area have been given in concession, to the Biennale di Venezia and to the Consorzio Venezia Nuova which houses the operations centre of the Mose Project. The special pontoon employed for the movement and installation of the barrier gates; is built in the northern part of the Arsenal.
LEFT: North entrance, looking straight down to the southern twin towers. Note, the external steel walkway, if you have the confidence!
Access to the Arsenal
The “La Biennale at the Arsenal”, is a program of free guided tours, to get to know the history of the Arsenal and its buildings, the spaces currently used by the Biennale and information regarding the Art and Architecture Exhibitions; as well as the recent renovation work and refurbishment.This service is available upon reservation, free of charge.
Tours start at 10 am. The duration of the tour is approximately 1 hour 30’.
TEL: +39 041 5218828
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