Old Venice: maritime might

On the underside of Basilica San Marco’s outer arch, a curious series of carvings are presented. At the first glance, they seem grim and muted, lost in the shadow of magnificence. This little example of medieval art constitutes a collection of scenes, surprisingly mundane for this place: ordinary activities of various Venetian craftsmen. Fisherman sits in the boat and dangles his line, while the apprentice stands and spears his fish; barber pools an aching tooth; milk and cheese merchants, well, pour the milk and hang up cheeses. Masons and vintners, fishmongers and bakers go about their day – up and around the arch, until culminating on the lower left side with the greatest of Venetian trades, the one, that had once secured its wealth and future: shipbuilding.

Basilica San Marco. Photo – courtesy of touritalynow.com

In theory at least, every form of work in Venetian Republic was considered a respectable and respected form of service to the state. It was also, as all aspects of life (especially economic life) in this lagoon city, tightly regulated. Each craftsmen’s guild had to draw up solemn charter (mariegole) for the approval of the government and the regulation of work under an appropriate patron saint. These intricate carvings were, therefore, entirely logical and appropriate parts of ornament, depicting industry and productivity of the nation (and, therefore, constituting a nice little propaganda asset). But, significant though all these images are, no craft in Most Serene Republic was as venerated, as rewarded and as vital, as shipbuilding.
The Arsenal, where it was conducted behind protective walls, constituted the largest industrial complex in the world. In Venice today, you can still see its majestic gates and famous Venetian lions, that protect them. At the beginning of the twelfth century it was still a relatively modest eight-acre naval depot; but by the dawn of Renaissance, by 16th century, it grown to sixty acres (a circumference of three miles). The famous Venetian ships, large enough to carry a fortune in rare cargo and mobile enough to outmaneuver any foe in the middle of the battle, were constructed there. And they, in turn, went on to construct the powerful mercantile empire around the globe.

And the way in which they were made became a living legend. Instead of following the ancient practice of creating the hull of the ship first and then putting in its inner braces, Venetians went far ahead of the day and created a method, which many centuries later would be called “assembly line”. Specialization of the tasks took place: timber experts felled, seasoned, and sawed choice wood for the ships’ carpenters, foundries and smiths cast the cannons, seamstresses worked on the sails. For us, this way of organizing production might seem logical and natural, yet for its day it was a revolution. When Republic was in its zenith, at least two thousand skilled artisans worked there, running up to three thousand in times of emergency. Under pressure, they could produce up to fifty galleys in a month. Indeed, so famous did Venetian Arsenal become, that king of France (Henry III) in 1574 was treated to a demonstration there, and shown, how a galley was rigged, armed, and launched within an hour.

Mighty Arsenal of Venice. Photo – courtesy of HarshLight.

Dante, in his turn, was impressed in quite another way by this epitome of industrial might. He later used his memories of Arsental in description of the flames of hell:
As dark fires in the Arsenal at Venice
Heat pitch, to caulk the hulls of homing ships,
Remade in winter when they cannot sail—
(Some hammer at the prow or at the stern.
A boat’s ribs, sprung from heavy voyaging,
Are straightened back.
The boats regain their rigs,
Their sails can fly as mizzen or as main)
— Just so, in fires not made of man, I saw
Foul pitch crawl up, erasing boundaries . . .
– INFERNO, 21.7».
Now, that doesn’t sound like a particularly appealing workplace. But, actually, craftsmen of the Arsenal were as cared for and protected, as it could get it the late medieval state. For instance, they had the early equivalent of security clearance to work in this sensitive area. Their families received pensions in case of industrial accident. Craftsmen themselves had a wine allotment (five or six times a day) – that would certainly prepare anyone for a working day…
Nor was their life confined to the walls of Arsenal – many of them went out to sea with the ships they made, taking the role of experts on repair and maintenance in action. When the need for new vessels was not pressing, they took honourable duty as crossbowmen. They also got to use their skills in luxury work as well as military shipbuilding, constructing the ceremonial barge of the Doge – the Bucintoro (name, derived from words burcio in oro, translating literally as “large golden boat”).

In the era, where the day timetable was charted by the ringing of church bells, the routine of Arsenal workers was considered so important, that it set the time for the whole city. The workday for everyone began, when largest bell in the piazza’s campanile rang for the Arsenal workers – that is, at down. (The government was quite happy about their industriousness, but what other workers of the city thought of this peculiar routine, history had not recorded…). The bell was called Marangone (“Carpenter”) in honor of its craftsmen. It rang for half an hour, giving the men (and some women) time to reach Arsenal gate. It rang again for a half hour at noon, announcing the end of lunch break.

Apart from constructing literal boats, the Arsenal also played a major role in constructing the image of the nation. It came in handy, when someone needed to speak about Venetian readiness for hard work, Venetian pluckiness, or, indeed, Venetian military might. The case of Henry III’s visit is quite telling. Of course, much more was involved in creating this narration of the (great) nation – pageants, architecture, painting, religious rituals and pagan mythology – and I will certainly speak about it in some detail.
But for now, I will only note this: although the Arsenal itself stands silent now, in Naval History Museum next to it you can discover its glorious moments once again.


Venice: History of the Floating City, Joanne Ferraro.
Venice: Lion City: The Religion of Empire, Garry Wills.


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