The Venetian Arsenale is one of the most important places in Venice. It was a shipyard and naval depot that played a leading role in the flourishing Venetian empire. It was Venice’s industrial powerhouse, an ultra-efficient shipbuilding production line which built the galleys that underpinned Venetian sea power.
During the 8th century Venice had shipyards that were scattered throughout the city. But in the early 12th century, shipyards that were scattered in the city became fire hazards, and in 1104 the centralized structure of the Arsenal was built and shipbuilding commenced. The old Arsenal was built between 1100 and 1300, and the new Arsenal complex between 1300 and 1400, while the newest Arsenal was built between 1473 and 1573.
Venice developed methods of mass-producing ships in the Arsenal, including the frame-first system to replace the Roman hull-first practice. At the peak of its efficiency in the early 16th century, it used the world’s first production line in which the Arsenal employed some 16,000 people who were able to produce a whole ship each day and could fit out, arm, and provision, a newly-built galley with standardized parts on a production-line basis not seen again until the Industrial Revolution.
The Arsenal's main gate, the Porta Magna, was built around 1460, and was the first classical revival structure to be built in Venice. It is thought to have been built by Antonio Gambello from a design by Jacopo Bellini. Two lions from Greece situated beside it were added in 1687.
The Arsenal Novissimo was begun in 1473. It enabled the creation of a system similar to an assembly line, in which hulls were constructed in the newer areas of the Arsenal, before being fitted out in the old Arsenal.
Significant parts of the Arsenal were destroyed under Napoleonic rule, and later rebuilt to enable the Arsenal's modern use as a naval base. The wealth of the city, its palazzi, churches, art and sculpture, were all derived from the profits of its trade and empire. The profits were dependent on its merchant and war fleets.
The working conditions in these yards were so harsh that Dante Alighieri, in the Divine Comedy, used a description of the Venetian Arsenal, as a simily for the Eighth Circle of Hell.
For a taste of what made the Republic tick, there’s nowhere better than this huge, and now virtually deserted complex. At present it is used as a research centre, an exhibition venue during the Venice Biennale and is home to a historic boat preservation centre.
The interior of the Arsenale is still occupied by the Italian Navy, and is off-limits as a military zone, but it’s worth heading to the main gates to see as much as you can. The gateway, designed by Antonio Gambello in 1460, is the first example of Renaissance classical architecture in the city.
Just off the Campo della Tana, on the other side of the canal, is the huge building which once housed the rope works, the Corderia. It’s used during the Biennale as an overflow exhibition space, and there are plans for further development of the area as a cultural center.