The Venetian Arsenal (Italian: Arsenale di Venezia) is a shipyard and naval depot that played a leading role in Venetian empire-building. It was one of the most important areas of Venice, lying in the Castello sestiere.
The Byzantine-style establishment may have existed as early as the 8th century, though the present structure is usually said to have been begun in 1104, although there is no evidence for such a precise date. It definitely existed by the early thirteenth century and is mentioned in Dante's Inferno. The name probably comes from Arabic Dar al Sina’a ("Dockyard") and the concept was clearly Islamic as much as Byzantine.
Initially the state dockyard worked merely to maintain naval ships built privately, but in 1320 the Arsenal Nuovo was built, much larger than the original. It enabled all the state's navy and the larger merchant ships to be both constructed and maintained in one place. The Arsenal incidentally became an important centre for rope manufacture, while housing for the arsenal workers grew up outside its walls.
Venice developed methods of mass-producing warships in the Arsenal, including the frame-first system to replace the Roman hull-first practice. The new system was much faster and required less wood. At the peak of its efficiency in the early 16th century, the Arsenal employed some 16,000 people who apparently were able to produce nearly one ship each day, and could fit out, arm, and provision a newly-built galley with standardized parts on a production-line basis not seen again until the Industrial Revolution.
The staff of the Arsenal also developed new firearms at an early date, beginning with bombards in the 1370s and numerous small arms against the Genoese a few years later. Improvements in handguns led to their muzzle velocity (and therefore their ability to penetrate armor) exceeding that of the crossbow. The Venetian condottieri leader, Bartolomeo Colleoni , is usually given credit as being the first to mount the Arsenal's new lighter-weight artillery on mobile carriages for field use.
The Arsenal's main gate, the Porta Magna, was built in about 1460 and was the first Classical revival structure to be built in Venice. It was built by Antonio Gambello from a design by Jacopo Bellini. Two lions from Greece situated beside it were added in 1687.
The Arsenal Novissimo was begun in 1473. It enabled the creation of a system similar to an assembly line, in which hulls were constructed in the newer areas of the Arsenal before being fitted out in the old Arsenal.
In the late 16th century, the Arsenal's designers experimented with larger ships as platforms for heavy naval guns. The most impressive was the galleass, already used at Lepanto, and developed from the old merchanting "great galley". It was huge, with sails as well as oars, and was virtually a floating fortress, with guns mounted on wheeled carriages along the sides in the modern fashion. It was slow and unwieldy in battle, however, and few were ever built. The galleon, also developed at the Arsenal, was an armed sailing ship, a slimmer version of the merchant "round ship ". It was useful in major naval battles, but not in the small bays and off the frequent lee shores of the Dalmatian coast.
Significant parts of the Arsenal were destroyed under Napoleonic rule, and later rebuilt to enable the Arsenal's present use as a naval base. It is also used as a research centre, an exhibition venue during the Venice Biennale and is home to a historic boat preservation centre.
- thetis - What is the Arsenale