Venetian Arsenal or in Italian Arsenale di Venezia is a huge complex of shipyards and armories that once guaranteed the naval supremacy of the Venetian republic and insured the prosperity of its naval trading routes. At its peak, thousands of workers at this place had a special status in Venice due to the importance of shipbuilding – they were the only ones insured to receive the pay if old or ill.
At the beginning, there were numerous small shipyards all around Venice. In the 13th century, it was decided to put together the knowledge of shipbuilding and reunite the expertise of numerous shipbuilders. This is how the Arsenal of Venice was founded and continued to grow for the next 400 years. The surrounding properties were expropriated, while numerous canals and bays were constructed in order to make place for construction buildings, storage houses and of course - ships.
Over time, the arsenal grew to become the largest structure of the city, covering 48 hectares and occupying 10% of the surface of the city.
At the peak of the Venetian power, thousands of its workers could assemble even three ships in one day. The incredible efficiency of the shipbuilders was rooted in the good division of work and the use of standardized materials. This is why some people refer to Arsenal as the first assembly line that preceded the industrial revolution.
In the Arsenal, massive galleasses were constructed, being much larger than the usual merchant galleys. In 1571, these ships ensured the victory of the Catholic coalition (Papacy, Spanish and Venetian armadas) against the Ottoman Empire. In the battle of Lepanto, 273 Turkish galleys with around 100,000 soldiers on board confronted the collation forces that consisted of 230 ships and around the same number of soldiers. Large Venetian galleasses were hiding more than 50 cannons on board and each opened fire. It was a massacre in which 40,000 men were killed in only four hours.
It is the only complex in Venice protected by a wall. Venice was always protected by the see, those characteristic shallow waters and canals that proved to be fatal to whoever didn’t know the safe passage routes. Therefore, the walls had no defensive purpose, but were rather constructed with the aim of protecting the Arsenal from the indiscrete eyes and hiding what happens within the arsenal.
In one section of the Arsenal, away from the eyes of even the workers at the arsenal, master builders traced the curves of the ships’ frame. The right curve of the frame would allow the ship the perfect speed, maneuverability and carrying capacity, but any mistake would cause the ship to be slow and not easily manageable. These secrets were so well-protected, that a master builder could reveal his secrets to the chosen apprentice only in oral form, since any writing was prohibited.
Standardization was another great achievement of the Venetian Arsenal. While building a ship’s frame was considered an art that was jealously protected, all other parts were built in the same manner. Therefore, in each port controlled by the Venetian republic, there were replace parts ready to be used on any boat for any kind of maintenance.
The master shipbuilder personally inspected the forests that belonged to the Venetian Republic. There he would choose the right wood for quality and mark the tree with the Venetian coat of arm in order not to be cut down by the local population.
Before the extensive use of canons on boats, one of the most reliable boats was the Venetian galley. It could host 200 to 250 rowers that would guarantee the return of the ship and the transported goods even with the absence of wind. Rowers were not the slaves or prisoners, but rather free citizens of the Venetian Republic that would receive a four-month pay before they would set sail. Also, they were permitted to transport a small amount of goods bought in one of the foreign ports without paying for the transportation, so that they would sell them in Venice on their return, ensuring an additional income for the rowers.
Venetian Arsenal today
A part of this enormous structure is used by Venetian Biennale. This section of the Arsenal is used for the organization of the famous exhibitions. Therefore, this section of the Arsenal can be visited by visiting Biennale.
The other section of the Arsenal still belongs to the Italian Navy and it also can be visited, but only in a guided tour that must be booked way in advance.
For this reason most people decide to visit one of the gates of the Arsenal (indicated on the map), from where they can enjoy the view on this immense structure and get an idea of how large the entire complex is.