Question: What super-secret site could build battleships in a day without anybody noticing?
Answer: The Arsenale of Venice
In the 13th century, Venice had a secret weapon—well, actually, more than four dozen of them. Venice was by that time already a world trading powerhouse, its sailors plying the seven seas. But while everyone knew that the merchant vessels sailing out of the harbor had begun their journeys at the ship-building Arsenale of Venice, there was more going on than most people realized.
Sprawling across a 2.5-acre lot, the Arsenale wasn’t your ordinary ship-building facility. That was signaled by the fact that no one could actually see inside: the complex was masked by enormous walls. Within each unseen section, separate crews worked to make only a single element of each vessel, whether it was the ropes for the rigging, the wood for the hulls, or the metal fixtures for armaments. While there were always 25 completed vessels on hand, ostensibly for merchant marine purposes, finished parts for 50 more, intended for battle, were kept at the ready in case of aggressive moves by the Turks. If need be, a new war ship could be quickly assembled, section by section, in as little as one day. Each boat hull was rolled along on logs to the next section, piece by piece being added before the boat was launched on internal channels, and then sent its way into the lagoon.
This was perhaps the earliest precursor to the factory method of the industrial era—a model that would not appear until centuries later.
10 Facts About the Arsenale of Venice
- The wood for the vessels came from the Montello Hills, a Venetian area that was protected for just this purpose.
- 5,000 workers shared a shift at peak times, yielding as many as 1,500 completed ship components in a single day.
- Secretive or not, the Arsenale’s process was described accurately by Dante in his Divine Comedy: “One hammers at the prow, one at the stern, this one makes oars, and that one cordage twists, another mends the mainsail and the mizzen.”
- Skill was highly prized: the best workers were called protomaestri (master builders) and they oversaw their fellow workers. Their boss was called the Great Admiral; despite the military name, he was actually picked from among the protomaestri.
- Children of dock workers and local orphans were offered schooling and skills training, in hopes of yielding an even better workforce.
- Work hours were dawn to dusk with a break for lunch. In turn, they got free housing and a free wine allotment, and could bring home whatever leftover materials were not used for a ship.
- The complex had a grand entrance gate, featuring eight mystical figures, including the gods Neptune and Mars, the goddess Bellona, and embodiments of Justice and Wealth. But even after all these centuries, known one knows who the last two statues are supposed to be.
- The gate also includes a pair of lions looted from Greece, one of which was defaced by Scandinavians in the 11th century who carved their names into the stone, boasting that they “conquered this port.”
- The Arsenale kept to its original purposed until World War I; by then, ship-building techniques had so changed that the facility could no longer keep pace.
- One of its most famous elements was one of the last added: an 1880s crane that had been commissioned when the Arsenale started trying to build iron battleships. The crane remains, though now unused, and has become an icon of the site.
- Today, the rope factory is one of the venues for the Venice Biennale, inviting crowds into a once secret space.
Witness the glories of the Venetian Republic for yourself during our Undiscovered Adriatic: Eastern Italy, Venice, Puglia & Malta Small Ship Adventure.