The trades of the Serenissima: the Arsenal
The great shipyard known as “the Arsenal” dates back to 1150-1200. In the early 1300s Dante described the frenetic industrial operations involved in the construction of the incredible fleet, experienced during his Venetian visit in 1321.
The Arsenal worked almost exclusively in the construction of ships for the military fleet and their outfitting, from rigging to sails, masts, oars, artillery pieces and ammunition. Different workshops worked on different pieces: carpentry, lathe-turning, sculpting and paint shops, galley outfitters, mast-makers, flag and sailmakers, smithies for anchors, oar-making shops, lock and sheet-metal smithies. At the time it was established, work was concentrated in the farming sector or in the crafts; the Arsenal, however, already operated in the manner of a factory of the Industrial Revolution, in terms of concentration of labour and capital and the integration of multiple trades.
At its peak, over 5,000 persons worked at the Arsenal, almost all men: labourers, carpenters, caulkers, blacksmiths, oar and rope makers, and many more tradesmen. The only women present were the sailmakers: a team of about forty who outfitted galleys and round-bottomed ships, working very heavy fabrics of thick and dense weave. To avoid any form of scandal, the sailmakers were isolated from all other workers and kept under the supervision of the Arsenal director himself, the Admiral. They worked in the velerìe, or sailhouse, a building that would disappear during subsequent transformations.
Venice Arsenal encapsulates 900 years of naval art, when the city and port were one.
Discover a unique perspective of the Arsenal from the tallest and most imposing building, the Torre delle Vele, the Sail Tower or Masting Tower, also known as Porta Nuova or New Port Towser, symbol of the Arsenal as the temple of all port operations. The tower was built to adapt to 19th century production of galleons and frigates, larger than galleys and galleasses, requiring a larger shipyard. The great harbour of the Arsenal was expanded, two lines of drydocks were demolished, and an entrance was opened on the north side, flanked by the new Masting Tower.