The Arsenal of Venice
The Arsenal of Venice: back in May 2010 I was lucky enough to visit the Arsenale in Venice.
The Arsenale is usually closed to the public; it is currently used only in small part as one of the venues of the Biennale di Venezia, but for a few days a year, thanks to an event called MareMaggio, the complex is opened to visitors.
During the event it is possible to wander around what used to be the heart of the naval industry of Venice starting from the XII century.
The Arsenale was the business centre of Venice. This was the place were more than 5% Venetian used to work, at some point up to 2000 people a day worked in the Squeri (they are the typical building sites for rowing boats of Venice).
Here the concept of factory was developed centuries before the Industrial Revolution: people performed in succession, just like an assembly line, all the single operations necessary to assemble a product using standard components and materials. Exactly like you would do in a proper factory nowadays.
In 1104 Venice decided to concentrate the production and the maintenance of the boats, which were vital to its politics of expansion, in one place instead of having the squeri spread all over the city. The city decided to have one big public squero.
The position of this complex was well thought out: the area had to have logical and security features, with easy linking to the main land (the wood arrived from the mountains of Cadore) and to Saint Mark’s Basin, whilst at the same time being protected by a possible enemy attack. The area chosen was the piece of land between La Bragora and the island of Olivolo.
The term Arsenal comes from Daras-sina’ah, meaning “house of industry.” The term, known to the Venetians through their frequent contacts with the Orient, would change into the Venetian darzanà, then corrupted over time in the form Arzano, mentioned by Dante in Hell, then, through arzanàl and Arsenal, the final form of arsenal.
To start with only maintenance work was carried out here, but as the years went by and Venice naval fleet power increased, so did the amount of activities and work which was performed in the Arsenale. Just think that in 1122 in the Arsenale they built more than 100 galleys, which fought in the battle against Tiro and for the 4th crusade more than 200 ships were built here.
During the following centuries the Arsenale was extended and a whole wood complex the Corderie, dedicated to the making of cords, was created,. It is during this period that the first ideas of assembly line were applied to the working system of the Arsenale.
To appreciate the scale and importance of the work which was carried out in the Arsenale, just think that in the 15th century the Venetian fleet included: 3300 ships, with 25.000 seamen and more than 16000 carpenters working in the warehouses.
This is the birthday place of the Bucintoro, the large galley for parades, which represented the power and wealth of Venice.
The Arsenale was also well protected, both from the enemies that from its own people, since the masters which worked in the Arsenale wanted to keep their trading secrets just like that, secret!!!
A massive tall wall surrounded the area with 18 watch towers.
The families of the people working in the Arsenale would live in the surrounding areas and at night the bridges connecting to the warehouses will be closed and guarded. The Arsenal’s main gate, the Porta Magna, was built in about 1460 and was the first Classical revival structure built in Venice. It was perhaps built by Antonio Gambello from a design by Jacopo Bellini.
In 1797, with the arrival of Napoleon, the Arsenale was completely looted and the Bucintoro destroyed. In the first period of French occupation, Napoleon destroyed all vessels in the Arsenal, except those who would take part in the war with the French fleet, and dismissed all of the 2000 arsenal and also abolished all distinctions between marine and merchant navy.
In 1814 with the fall of the Kingdom of Italy, Venice and the whole Veneto returned to the Empire of Austria and the Arsenal became the most important weapon of the Austrian Imperial Navy .
In the years following the making of the Italian Kingdom (Regno d’Italia – 1861) the Arsenal started a slow decline, no longer able to meet the enormous needs of modern naval forces, until his partial abandonment.
At the entrance of the Arsenale there is also the Museo Storico Navale di Venezia.
The museum was founded in 1919 after the first World War and it is located in Campo S. Biagio, in a historic building dating back to the fifteenth century. This building was used for centuries as a “barn” to keep the grain which was used by the kilns to pack a special type of long-life bread called “biscotto”, which was eaten aboard the ships during their long journeys.
Through our visit a young and nice guide explained us and showed the different type of boats which were built here. We saw old gondolas, galleys, sandolos, steam boats and war ships. We visited also the old storing warehouse of the Bucintoro, were you can get a pretty good idea of how big the boat was just by the size of the place which used to contain it!
You can reach the Arsenale by vaporetto (the water bus), the stop is ARSENALE.
You can visit the Museum of Naval History, Riva S. Biasio Castello, 2148 – 30122 Venezia, from Monday to Saturday from 8.45 till 13.00, it is closed on Sundays.