It is the ultimate in political one-upmanship. Want to impress a foreign leader with the power and efficiency of your navy? Then have a ship built at the Arsenale di Venezia while you are having dinner with your guest. At the height of the Most Serene Republic’s power, several of the Doges of Venice used this tactic, showing off their might to potential adversaries.
Located on the eastern side of the city, in the Castello sestiere (district), the Arsenale (the word is a corruption of the Arabic, Dar Sina, or workshop/place of production) is an enormous dockyard, once the most extensive complex in Europe before the start of the Industrial Revolution and the key to Venice’s wealth and power.
THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE ARSENALE
In the early years of the city’s existence, the rulers of Venice knew that they needed the ability to launch ships at short notice to protect themselves from hostile forces as well as to ensure the safety of the city’s extensive trading routes.
Venetians were building ships as early as the 8th century, in small, scattered workshops across the island. At the beginning of the 12th century, the Doge (Ordelato Faliero) pulled all these workshops together into a single unit; two centuries later, subsequent leaders expanded it until, by the 16th century, the Arsenale occupied 15 percent of the area of Venice, employing 16,000 people with specialized technical skills. Using standardized, prefabricated parts, a ship could be assembled, equipped, and launched in a single day.
In addition to the production of ships (both military and merchant), the Arsenale serviced and refitted them after every voyage. New types of vessels, like the galleon (an armed sailing ship that was the basis of Venice’s maritime power), were designed here. Weapons were manufactured, and the site served as a giant storehouse for provisions and equipment. Its production was legendary. In 1570 during a war against the Turks, the Arsenale turned out 100 warships in less than two months.
It should come as no surprise that Galileo Galilei served as a consultant to the Arsenale in 1593, suggesting many major innovations that improved the use of munitions. The Arsenale’s fame was such that even Dante refers to it and its “boiling vats of pitch” in his Inferno as a description of hell.
THE DECLINE OF VENICE’S MARITIME POWER
Venice began its slow decline in the 1600s, the result of changing trade routes and geopolitics. In 1797, when Napoleon conquered Venice, he burned down the Arsenale, confiscating the remnants of the Venetian Navy. These he sent to the Mediterranean where Nelson subsequently destroyed them at the Battle of Aboukir, sending them to join the remains of ancient Egypt at the bottom of the Bay.
During the Austrian occupation of Venice, the Arsenale was rebuilt, remaining in operation until the end of 1917. Today, parts of it are still occupied by the Italian Navy as well as by the MOSE project (the giant underwater gates being developed to protect the lagoon from flooding during periods of high tide). The Arsenale is also used to stage special events such as the Biennale di Venezia that takes place every fall, or during Carnevale.
VISITING THE ARSENALE
Because of its distance from St. Mark’s Square, far fewer visitors visit the Castello district except during special events. However, it is rich in photographic opportunities.
Our favorite way to visit the area is to stroll there from Piazza San Marco along the Riva Degli Schiavoni (which translates as “shore of the Slavs”). The twenty-minute walk provides breathtaking views over the city and the lagoon.
When you reach the Rio del’Arsenale, turn left onto the Fondamenta Arsenale. Two towers appear at the end, on either side of the small canal. Once these were part of the 14th-century mile-long rampart that protected the shipyard.
A wooden bridge, the Ponte de L’Arsenale o Del Paradiso (The Bridge of the Arsenal or Paradise) crosses the canal to the Fondamenta degli Arsenalotti named after the workers in the Arsenale.
A unique dodecagonal or twelve-sided clock (the only one of its kind in Venice) decorates the front of the tower. Roman numerals in trapezoids surround the blue face, dotted with golden stars. A Moorish-style crescent moon adorns the clock’s hands.
Adjacent to the tower is the Porta Magna, the Arsenale’s southern entrance. Built in 1460, it is thought to be the earliest Renaissance structure in Venice. The doorway consists of a triumphal arch, flanked by marble columns, crowned by a pediment of St. Mark’s lion holding a closed book. (Most of the sculptures of St. Mark’s lion show it with an open book, a symbol of peace. When the book is closed, it is a symbol of war).
A plaque on the wall memorializes Venice’s 1571 victory over the Turks at Lepanto. On top, two winged statues of the Victories flank Santa Giustina credited with helping win the battle.
Baroque versions of Greek gods and allegorical figures decorate the terraced porch. Along the wrought-iron fence of the Porta Magna are four lions, all spoils of war.
The single lion on the left side of the gate (dating to 360 BC) is known as the Piraeus Lion. Victorious Venetian commander (then Doge), Francesco Morosini, “liberated” it from the harbor at Piraeus, Athens. It stands about nine feet high and is marked by two runic inscriptions (graffiti left behind by Scandinavian sailors) along its shoulders and flanks. A visiting Danish scholar deciphered these only in the 19th century.
To the right of the Porta Magna is the Hephaisteion Lion. It looks right, appearing to smile at its neighbors. The sculpture was placed here in 1716 to mark the recapture of Corfu. The head is seemingly a new addition, as evidenced by the seam around the neck.
The Delos Lion is next with its disproportionate body and goofy expression. It probably was taken from the Lion Terrace at Delos and dates from the 6th-century BC
THE NAVAL MUSEUM
The Arsenale is also home to the Maritime and Naval Museum of Venice, which recently reopened after a lengthy restoration. It is one of the largest in Italy.
The Museum is housed in the old Granary building on the edge of the lagoon, dating to the 1400s. The Venetians used it to store the special grain used to make long-life bread, known as “biscotti” that sailors took on their voyages. The five floors of exhibits trace the evolution of Venetian maritime history from rowing boats to galleons and frigates.
Located on the Fondamenta Arsenale, across from the Porta Magna, is the Ships Pavilion, an enormous workshop once used for the production of oars. For a brief period in the 16th century, after a fire destroyed the Doge’s Palace, Venice’s Great Council met in this building to conduct affairs of state. Today, it houses a display of old boats, ships, and gondolas. Included among these is the Doge’s Royal Barge, the Bucintoro, built in the first half of the 19th century (Napoleon burned the original). Gold leaf decorations cover the sixty-foot by ten-foot vessel. King Victor Emanuele II used the Bucintoro to visit the city when Venice joined the Kingdom of Italy in 1866 after the defeat of the Austrians.
Near the entrance of the Museum is the Chiesa of San Biagio dating to the 12th-century. Originally, the church served the large community of Greek emigrants before they moved to the Church of San Giorgio. Since 1810 it has been used by Venetian sailors and is still officiated by a military chaplain. It is rarely open.
The success of the Arsenale and the resulting prowess of Venice’s navy and merchants paid for the creation of the city that still exists today. To truly understand Venice, a visit to the Arsenale is essential.
For a trip down memory lane, visit the Arsenale during Carnevale. The site serves as a perfect backdrop to colorful, costumed models, who pose among the remnants of history. It is a photographer’s dream.
IF YOU GO
The north entrance of the Arsenale can be reached with Vaporettos 4.1, 4.2, 5.1 and 5.2 (Bacini-Arsenale Nord stop). Since Vaporetto 5.2 runs inside the walls of the Arsenale, you have an opportunity to see some parts of it.
You can also access it from the Campo de la Celestia, across a walkway along the northern wall. The north entrance is usually open to the public from Monday to Friday, 1000-1700. The other gates are only open during special events like the Biennale di Venezia, which takes place every fall or during Carnevale.
The south entrance of the Arsenale, which takes you to the picturesque Porta Magna, can be reached either by Vaporettos 1, 4.1 and 4.2 (Arsenale stop) or on foot along Riva degli Schiavoni. This entrance is open during the Biennale di Venezia
The Maritime and Naval Museum is on Riva S. Biasio at the end of the Rio del’Arsenale. It is open from 1000-1800 (1 April to 31 Oct) and 1000-1700 (1 Nov to 31 March). For a guided tour, reserve in advance at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Ship Pavilion, which is part of the Maritime and Naval Museum, is open every day from 1100 to 1700.
For more images of Venice, visit the gallery at Allegria Photos.