What is the Arsenale?
The Arsenale is a complex of historic shipyards that was founded in the 12th century and serviced the Venetian Republic’s powerful fleet.
For hundreds of years, the economic prosperity of the Venetian Republic was heavily reliant on its ability to control trade in the Mediterranean. The significance of the Arsenale, therefore, can hardly be overstated, geographically, symbolically, and eventually for the influence it had on the wider world. It’s as large as an entire district with its multifaceted structures, and it gave its name – derived from the Arabic darsina’a (meaning ‘workshop’) – to many subsequent dockyards around the globe. Throughout its history, the Arsenale was conceived as an independent city, completely surrounded by walls, where as many as 16,000 workers, the arsenalotti, tirelessly strained to build the state’s acclaimed galleys.
The location of the Arsenale was chosen for strategic reasons, close to San Marco and where the wooden logs for shipbuilding from the region of Cadore would have arrived in the city, in a monastic, non-residential area. The first work began in the 12th century. Today, two opposing brick towers are still the gatekeepers to the walled complex. To their left you’ll see the monumental Porta di Terra (or Land Gate), built in the mid-15th century from reused columns. This great gateway, fashioned in the style of an ancient Roman triumphal arch, is one of the earliest Renaissance works in the city. It’s protected by statues of lions (the symbol of Saint Mark, Venice’s patron saint), which were all brought from Greece in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The original nucleus of the Arsenale is the Darsena Vecchia (or Old Dockyard), a small stretch of water just behind these towers that was once flanked by two rows of twelve shipyards. It was an early ‘industrial’ complex, with the subsequent construction of workshops for rope making, oars, and caulking (making the vessels watertight). Over the years, the area was expanded to correspond with the rise in Venice’s maritime might, affording the Republic more space to construct ever larger ships.
By the 16th century, the Arsenale had become the most efficient shipbuilding enterprise the world had ever seen. In the rest of Europe, the construction of a large vessel would often take many months, here however an impressively streamlined process had been developed that enabled the Arsenale to produce a ship in a matter of days. Rather than bring materials and workers to the ships, the Venetians created an assembly line with galleys constantly moving along from station to station where specialised workers would focus on their own specific task. Dante, perhaps the most famous European Medieval poet, memorably described the febrile activity of these workers in a passage of his epic poem the Divine Comedy:
‘…caulking up again the unsound ships,
which cannot then be sailed; — instead of which,
as one a new one builds, one plugs the ribs
of that which many voyages has made;
one hammers at the stern, and at the prow another;
one fashions oars, another cordage twists,
while still another mends a jib or mainsail’
In fact, so serious was the approach that at the end of the 16th century, the famous astronomer, physicist and engineer Galileo was hired as a consultant here to solve some of the Arsenale’s production and logistical issues. This innovative assembly-line approach was repeated around the world and was a precursor to the factory processes of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Although its shipbuilding days are long gone, the names of the Arsenale hint at its past: for example, the Rio della Tana (the canal southeast of here) is so named because the hemp used to make the ropes came from Tanais (in modern-day Russia). While as a homage to Dante, the republic decided to name three houses close to the Arsenale with the title of each book of his Divine Comedy (Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso).
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