Far from the hustle and bustle of St Marks Square teaming with tourists eager to see the wonders of Venice, Italy, there is a quiet little canal on the eastern end of the city that leads to the entrance of what is known as the Arsenale di Venezia, (Venice Arsenal). At the head of the short canal, there are two majestic towers which mark the entrance to what once was a very busy and productive shipyard. They stand adjacent to the Porta Magna which is now occupied by the Italian Navy. The entrance remains very much the same as it was in a painting by the renowned artist Canaletto in 1732.
The arsenal is quiet these days, but at one time it was a very busy place and occupied about 118 acres. By 1535 it employed 16,000 workers producing one complete ship a day at a time when it took months to build s wooden ship. The ability to build a ship in one day was enabled by a carefully planned set up which we know today as a production line.
Perhaps the most import factor in the ability of the Arsenal to build a ship in such record time comes from their embracing what at the time was considered a revolutionary concept. The accepted method of building a ship dated back centuries, it was called the hull-first method. In this time-honored method, craftsman would put together the hull and lock it together with mortise holes and tenon rods like a grand puzzle. Once the hull was fully formed and assembled, then the frames would be installed. Busy craftsman at the Venice Arsenal realized that building the frame then installing the planking was cheaper and faster and actually used less wood.
The frame-first method became the method used at the Venice Arsenal. Once the new ship was assembled it was moved to the next station in what had become a shipbuilding assembly line. Station number two was the caulking station where ships were laid on their side and sealed. Various items like strong fiber, tar and other substance were used to seal the hull and make it watertight. Once the ships had been fully caulked, they were launched and tied to a functioning ship.
The combination was then dragged to the next station. At station number three, masts were installed, and the sails were installed. Then it was onto the armory and foundry where the ship was fitted out with bronze and cast-iron cannons. In addition, howitzers, mortars, cannon carts and cannon balls were loaded on the new ship. Special bridges were installed on larger ships fore and aft to hold the heavier cannons.
Once the ship was fully armed, it was dragged to the massive Corderie. This was the largest building on the assembly line. In it, ships were made ready for sea. Sails were unfurled and attached to the masts. Anchors, oars and rudders were installed along with spares. All details were attended to and construction was completed.
The final station was at the bakery just outside the gate. The function of the bakery was to provision the ship with its special kind of hardtack. This was a kind of dry biscuit had an incredible shelf life. Biscuits that were made in 1668 and found 300 years later were still edible.
In the mid-16th century, the Venice Arsenal began to build the Galeazza class galley to replace the DaMercato class. The new galley was 165 feet long, 40 feet wide and carried three masts.
It required a crew of 700, 340 of these were rowers. For its time it was state of the art and ruled the waves in the Mediterranean. The Venice Arsenal became the place to buy a galley.
Galileo Galilei who was at that time a mathematics professor at the Italian University of Padua when he became interested in the Venetian Arsenal and how the ships were designed and built. Galileo was asked to study the placement of oars and how to make them more efficient. He also developed a horse powered water pump and improved aiming devices for cannoneers.
Arsenal workers consumed a prodigious 600,000 liters of wine a year. The wine was dispensed from a fountain that could pump out 10 liters a minute as much as 6,000 liters every shift.
Workers labored 11 hours a day in summer and 6 in winters. There were 2,000 highly skilled workers and an army of porters and unskilled workers. Skilled workers had a job for life and if they just showed up they were paid. There were about 100 women employed there to sew and repair canvas in the enormous sail lofts. The most important workers in the arsenal were the master shipwrights. They did not use plans but worked by eye to lay out each vessel. Secrets were handed down from father to son and refined with each new craft. There was fierce completion among master shipwrights and their families.
A Spanish traveler named Pero Tafur wrote this when he witnessed galleys being prepared in 1436 at the Venice Arsenal.
“On one side are windows opening out of the houses of the arsenal, and the same on the other side, and out came a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows they handed out to them—from one the cordage, from another the bread, from another the arms and from another the ballistas and mortars—and so from all sides everything that was required. And when the galley had reached the end of the street, all the men required were on board, together with the complement of oars, and she was fully equipped from end to end. In this manner there came out 10 galleys, fully armed, between the hours of 3 and 9. I know not how to describe what I saw there, whether in the manner of its construction or in the management of the workpeople, and I do not think there is anything finer in the world.”
In 1797 Napoleon Bonaparte in his attempt to conquer the world conquered Venice and destroyed the Arsenal. It was not until 1815 that, free of Napoleon, the new governor of Venice, Peter Goess instituted reforms that include the creation of the Museo Storico Navale or “Naval History Museum”. The museum is located next to the entrance of the Venice Arsenal and houses some of the most incredible artifacts of Venice. It is a repository of the nautical history of Venice and a delightful place to experience the essence of Venice. It is jam packed with vintage Gondolas of all sorts, exquisite maps, models, paintings, artifacts and more. The Venice Arsenal and the Naval Museum next to it are an incredible part of the maritime history of ships and the men who built them.
The Florentine poet Dante Alighieri visited Venice in 1321 The great poet of the Divine Comedy visited Venice as an ambassador of Guido Novello da Polenta, lord of Ravenna.
Dante was very impressed by Venice, but above all, he was inspired by the Arsenal, the shipyard where the Venetians created their incredible fleet and which at that time was in full swing. In fact, in the twenty-first canto of the Inferno, to explain the punishment reserved for swindlers, the immersion in boiling pitch, Dante evokes an image of the Venice Arsenal:
As in the Arsenal of the Venetians
Boils in winter the tenacious pitch
To smear their unsound vessels over again
For sail, they cannot, and instead thereof
One makes his vessel new, and one recaulks
The ribs of that which many a voyage has made
One hammer at the prow, one at the stern
This one makes oars and that one cordage twists
Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen…
The Dante quotes adorn plaques placed on the left of the main entrance of the Arsenal. On the right of the big front door, there stands a bust of the great poet.