The Arsenal of Venice

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The Arsenal was a shipyard and naval depot that played a major role in the flourishing Venetian Empire. It was the productive heart of Venice, a naval production chain that built the galleys that sustained Venetian power. It was an ancient complex of shipyards and workshops located in the easternmost part of the city.

In the 8th century Venice had shipyards scattered throughout the city. But at the beginning of the 12th century, the scattered shipyards were too often at risk of fire. So in 1104 it was decided to build a centralised structure, now known as the Arsenale. The newer Arsenale was built between 1473 and 1573. Venice developed methods of mass-producing ships unique in the world until then. At the height of its efficiency in the early 16th century, the Arsenal employed some 16,000 people. The Arsenal workers were able to produce an entire ship a day by fitting out and fitting in.

 The entrance to the Arsenal, the Porta Magna, was built around 1460 and was the first classical revival structure in Venice. The gate is thought to have been built by Antonio Gambello to a design by Jacopo Bellini. In 1687 two Greek lions were added next to it. The Arsenale Novissimo was begun in 1473. It was similar to an assembly line, where hulls were built 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 allow the modern use of the Arsenal as a naval base.

The city's wealth, its palaces, churches, art and sculpture, all derived from the profits of its trade and empire. The profits depended on its merchant and war fleets. Working conditions in these shipyards were so harsh that Dante Alighieri, in his Divine Comedy, used a description of the Venetian Arsenal for the Eighth Row of Hell.

It is now a research centre, the exhibition venue for the Venice Biennale and is also home to a historic boat conservation centre. The interior of the Arsenale is still occupied by the Italian Navy and is forbidden as a military zone. However, it is worth heading to the main gates to see as much as possible. The gate, designed by Antonio Gambello in 1460, is the city's first example of classical Renaissance architecture. Just outside Campo della Tana, on the other side of the canal, is the huge building that once housed the cable cars, the Corderia. It is used during the Biennale as an exhibition space.

If you're planning a trip to Venice, you should visit the Arsenale in conjunction with the Biennale.