Venice Arsenal

Venice Arsenal was historically the heart of the Venetian ship building, from the twelfth century onwards.

In fact, the Arsenal is linked to the most flourishing period of the Venetian Republic, as, thanks to the massive ships built here, Venice to expand its bases within the Aegean Sea and conquer many Northern European routes.

Venice Arsenal was the earliest adopter of the modern factory concept, using a production complex in which skilled workers performed, in sequence, individual assembly operations of building a ship along an assembly line and using standard components.

The Arsenal operation is the most important example of a large production complex using a centralized structure in the pre-industrial world economy.

Venice Arsenal

PHOTO: Landside entrance to the Venice Arsenal.

The operation covers an area of around 46 hectares (113 acres), while the number of workers (called “Arsenalotti”) reached, during its historical periods of high production activity, averaging 1,500-2,000 people, which is to say, about 2% of the city’s population at the time.

Of the Arsenal buildings, the Corderie section (historical ropemaking section) is used today as one of the venues of the Venice Biennale, while the other sections are still used for small shipbuilding and other minor activities by the Italian armed forces.

The word “Arsenal”, in modern Italian, derives from arabic language word (“daras-sina’ah”) that translates as “house of industry”, a factory, in other words.

The term, known to the Venetians via their frequent contacts with the Orient, was first passed to the Venetians as darzanà, taking, over time, first the form arzana, as mentioned by Dante in his poem “Inferno”, then, through arzanàl to the final form of arsenal.

There is no fixed date for when the Venice Arsenal was established, but there are references to the Doge Faliero Ordelafo and 1104, when he gave a decree for more development to the shipbuilding industry, a strategic activity for the Venetian Republic.

The location of the Venice Arsenal, between convent of San Pietro di Castello and the parish of San Giovanni in Bragora (old docks), was chosen for strategic (for defense against possible enemy attacks) and logistic (the arrival point of lumber from Cadore) reasons.

The first group of buildings, first documented in the beginning of the 13th century, consists of two rows of shipyards at the sides of the old docks area of San Giovanni in Bragora. They can be accessed from the Bacino di San Marco only through a narrow canal.

At the beginning of the 14th century, as a result of increased shipbuilding needs of the city, buildings were added to the “Lago di San Daniele” (adjacent to the monastery) and Arsenal Nuovo (New Docks) were built.

At that time, the area also got workshops for oars, Corderie della Tana (for ship rope manufacturing), and a Department of artillery.

With the fall of Constantinople (1453) and the consequent Turkish threat in the Mediterranean, Arsenal got the monumental Porta di Terra, which alluded to the role of Venice as a defender of Christianity, and the two towers, which were rebuilt in the seventeenth century.

The entrance land portal to the Arsenal was built based on Roman triumphal arches, and it is, in fact, the first example of Italian Renaissance art in the city.

Third major phase of construction for the Arsenal took place from 1473-1570, which was also the biggest expansion of the shipyards. Construction during this time included residences for external workers, public bakeries, and warehouses for grain (“Darsena Nuovissima”) and Galeazze shipyards (for building galeas), which led Arsenal to cover an area of almost 24 hectares (59 acres).

In the three centuries that followed, always surrounded by an aura of secrecy, Arsenal became a major producer of galleys and large galleys, production of which determined the victory of Christianity in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, and subsequently Arsenal became the focus of Venetian development.

During the first French occupation (1797-1798), however, Napoleon put an end to all shipbuilding at the Arsenal, combining the existing ships to the French fleet, and dismissed all 2,000 people working for the Arsenal.

Arsenal was, nevertheless, partly resettled between 1798-1806, during the first Austrian government, and later, by the Napoleonic government of the Kingdom of Italy, of which Venice became part, Arsenal was put back in business and its productivity was increased.

When, in 1814, the Kingdom of Italy fell, Venice and the entire Veneto region returned to the Empire of Austria, with Arsenal becoming the most important shipyard for the Imperial Austro-Venetian navy.

In 1866, after the third war of independence, Venice became part of the Kingdom of Italy, which wanted to revive the Arsenal as a major naval base in Northern Adriatic. Venice had, in fact, been chosen by the government as the main base of Adriatic fleet at the expense of Ancona, former naval military base at the Adriatic sea.

During this phase, Arsenal was expanded to include areas from the old docks and three convents of S. Daniele, delle Vergini, and della Celestia.

In the years following the changes, Arsenal went into a slow decline, as it was no longer able to meet the demands of modern naval forces, and thus, it was abandoned as a major military base.

Today, and in recent years (especially since 2003), there has been efforts to elevate the importance of the Arsenal, by including the buildings in Venetian cultural activities. The major problem, however, is partly in the vastness of the historical shipyards, and partly in that the buildings still house sections of the Italian armed forces.