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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

The Arsenal of Venice

Updated: May 13, 2022

"In one part of the arsenal there was a great crowd of masters and workmen who do nothing but build galleys or other ships of every kind.…"

Canon Pietro Casola, Journal of Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the Year 1494

Often we ascribe credit to individuals for notable inventions. These stories take on their own mythos and become embedded into our cultural consciousness. Henry Ford has been given tremendous credit for "inventing" the assembly line. Yet this is an oversimplification that takes away from what Henry Ford achieved. Many of Ford's contemporaries were utilizing some form of an assembly line before Ford, but his breakthrough was his application of the assembly line within the automotive industry. He made improvements that streamlined and increased the efficiency of the process, whereby he could significantly increase his productive output. In this regard, Ford transformed manufacturing. But production lines and assembly lines existed even in the pre-industrial age. The ancient Chinese used mass production techniques and division of labor to manufacture metal implements, weapons, and armor. One of the most extensive examples of a pre-industrial assembly line complex was the Arsenal in Venice, Italy.

17th century map of the Arsenal

By the 11th century CE, Venice had grown from its humble start as a refugee camp of those escaping the Lombard invasions of the 5th century. It was an independent city-state and took advantage of its place on the Adriatic Sea to become the conduit for goods from Byzantium, Persia, and the Far East. Venice established a complex trading network on three continents throughout the medieval period. Trade was the basis of the city's wealth, power, and prestige. The self-described republic recognized that they required a superior military force, particularly a strong navy, to protect their commercial interests abroad and defend the city at home. Seapower would also allow them to extend their sphere of influence, and at their height, the Venetians had sole control of the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, maritime life was the bloodline of Venice.

The Arsenal was born from this dependence on the sea. The word is derived from the Arabic dār-aṣ-ṣinā‘a - "house of industry." The Italians are the first to utilize arzenale in referring to a dockyard or wharf. (Later on, in the 17th century, it would take on its more modern meaning of a place to stockpile weapons.) It is believed that shipbuilding took place on the Arsenal site since the 8th century, but the earliest records place the construction beginning about 1104 CE. At first, it was used to maintain and repair privately built ships, but in 1320, the site was expanded and enlarged with the construction of the Arsenale Nouvo, the New Arsenal. Here both the state's growing navy and large merchant ships could be built and maintained in one central location. By the 16th century, the Arsenal would be one of the largest government-sponsored military-industrial complexes of the pre-industrial period. The Arsenal's efficiency would become legendary throughout Europe. Even in 1620, English traveler Peter Mundy would comment that "they are able to in few dayes to build, rigg, furnish, arme and sett forth a good fleete of gallies." This efficiency resulted from many organizational and workflow practices familiar to a modern observer: assembly lines, specialized workforce, vertical integration, quality control, and standardized parts.

Traditionally, manufacturing was done by the various craft guilds in the medieval period. The guilds trained workers, set standards, and defended against competition. Skilled craftsmen or teams of craftsmen created by hand a product or parts of a product. Individual components were fitted together using cut-and-try techniques. In urban settings like Venice, the guilds would be located in specific neighborhoods. In the case of shipbuilding, the supplies and parts were produced in scattered workshops around the port and then brought to the shipyard where the hull was being built.

The Arsenal centralized this activity. Its buildings housed workshops, forges, areas for sail and rope making, and storage facilities for the necessary raw materials. The major guilds were the carpenters, caulkers, and oar makers. Other guilds included makers of masts, pulleys, sawyers, coopers, and even a guild for those who rafted lumber down rivers to Venice. A guild apprentice started as young as ten years old, and the apprenticeship lasted for up to eight years. Becoming a master required passing a rigorous practical exam before the other masters. The workers were called the arsenalotti, and they were held in high regard by the Venetian state. They were granted special privileges, and the master craftsmen were influential in the city's government. At its height, the Arsenal employed nearly 2,000 skilled workers and an army of unskilled labor.

One of the keys to the Arsenal's success was a change in shipbuilding methods. Since Roman times, the predominant mode of construction was shell or hull first. In this method, all or parts of the outer hull are constructed first, and then the supporting framework is attached. The Venetians introduced the frame-first method of shipbuilding. Here, the supportive framework is built like a skeleton, and then the hull planks are attached. This new method was quicker and used less wood in constructing a ship. This new method also led to two other significant innovations employed by the Arsenal. Instead of bringing work to the hull, ships were built using an assembly line approach. The hull was towed via a series of canals to the required stations. At each stage, workers caulked, installed masts, equipped the ship with weapons, added rigging and sails, and fitted oars. Parts became standardized to make the work easier and more efficient. The Venetians constantly built hulls and then stored them. Practicing just-in-time production methods, they would take the hulls out of storage as needed and then complete the construction process.

The Venetians recognized that crew and valuable cargo depended upon the sound construction of a ship. Government oversight and quality control became vitally important. The guilds were under constant supervision, and officials performed inspections daily. Craftsmen were held accountable for mistakes and flawed products. For example, each ropemaker had a colored thread woven into the rope. It was easy to trace it back to the original maker if the rope failed. Shoddy products were grounds for dismissal. The Arsenal management was a group of elected nobility, and they worked closely with the Venetian government to coordinate policies and projects. The state invested heavily in the Arsenal to continually expand the site and keep their workers happy with exceptional pay, pensions, and a good supply of wine. The Arsenal accounted for up to 10% of the state's public budget.

The Arsenal, being a state-sponsored facility, sought to control the supply chain of raw materials necessary in ship construction. Shipbuilding demanded a prodigious amount of wood, and Venice went to great lengths to secure and protect the forests that were essential in supplying the lumber for ships. By the middle of the 15th century, the Arsenal oversaw the management of Venice's mainland forest preserves. They mapped the timber supply down to the level of individual trees, and carpenters visited the forests to select and brand trees based on the ultimate purpose of the wood. Trees were even trained to grow in the desired shapes for keels and ribbing. Similarly, the city took control of the hemp supply for rope making. At one time, they relied on the region surrounding Bologna for hemp. The hemp was costly, and the area was often controlled by a hostile Florence. Therefore, in 1455, Venice drained marshland, hired a Bolognese expert, and began a program to train the local citizenry in hemp cultivation.

Battle of Lepanto

The Arsenal also became a center of research and development. The master shipwrights practiced continuous improvement in refining the Venetian war galley. They carried out research and experimentation on both weapon and ship designs. Over 200 years, they made the Venetian galley the most feared warship on the Mediterranean. The shipwrights closely guarded their trade secrets and passed these down to family members. In this way, they became dynasties unto themselves. The loss of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 placed pressure on the Venetians. Fearing the loss of their position in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Venetians set about expanding the capabilities of the Arsenal. The site was developed to over 60 acres of basins, hangers, depots, and yards. A fifty-foot wall surrounded the area capped with battlements. It was fully transformed into a war machine. The loss of the vital colony of Negroponte in Greece shifted the balance of power to the Ottomans in 1473. The Ottoman threat forced the Arsenal into a half-century of frenzied technical innovations. These would culminate in the development of a fleet of heavily armored galleys, called galleasses, which were mounted with cannons. These ships would play a crucial role in the Catholic coalition's victory at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The battle would mark the end of Ottoman naval dominance in the region.

The Arsenal at Venice reached its height in the 16th century and would continue to operate until the Napoleonic era. By all accounts, it was an industrial system to rival any in the modern industrial age. The Arsenal used mass-production methods long before men like Henry Ford. Yet, like the Chinese and moveable type or the Ancient Greeks and steam power, questions remain as to why this successful manufacturing model did not take root in Europe prior to the Industrial Revolution.


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