The Arsenale of Venice
Historical information on the development
of the plant and architectures
The Arsenal of Venice is located in the sestiere of Castello, at the eastern end of the city, and it occupies an area of about forty hectares, equal to one twelfth of that of the entire historic centre of the city.
The first documentary sources that can be reported with certainty to the complex, are only since the beginning of the thirteenth century. It can be assumed, from the reading of some documents, that there is a relationship between the development of the settlement and the events of the fourth Crusade. On that occasion, between 1201 and 1202, the Doge Enrico Dandolo was engaged in the preparation of 140 transport ships and 70 galleys from war. An undertaking construction of enormous dimensions, which wrecked most of the squeri of Venice and was probably decisive in the shipyard of the Castle, located in the vicinity of the church of San Martino.
With the designation Arsena communis, were indicated in Venice those squeri for boats built with public money; until the first half of the fourteenth century there were different, and their task was also at the service of private individuals; the most important was that of Terranova, located in the vicinity of Piazza San Marco, where now are the gardens of the Royal Palace. Between the end of the Thirteenth Century and the early decades of the Fourteenth Century there is a real program for the development of the site of San Martino, which seems to suggest a precise determination of it to become the main core public shipbuilding of Venice.
After 1280, in fact, the complex was intended only to the public function and at the beginning of the Fourteenth Century it was given the start for an enlargement to the east.
In those years the Corderie della Tana were built and after 1325, the extension was completed toward the north, with the formation of the Darsena Nuova, reclaiming a marshy basin acquired from the Benedictine monastery of San Daniele. On the fronts north and south of the Dock were built two arrays of squeri: the first covered yards. The enlargement of the Fourteenth century constitutes what is still called Arsenale nuovo. The complex of the Arsenale, consisting of the original core updated and the new expansion, then became an articulated complex and functional, with a high potential shipbuilding, which allowed people to operate simultaneously on the construction of more than sixty galleys. In 1341, with the suppression of the Terranova Arsenal, the Arsenal of Castello became the main public yard of the city and from that date you can begin to speak of the Arsenal of Castello as the Venice Arsenal.
The update process continues throughout the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Century with the creation of some buildings functional to the shipbuilding activities, equipping the whole southern area of soil, then called Campagna, as a real production area for the construction of the galleys.
Among the buildings constructed in this area, at the end of the Fourteenth Century, we must remember the
Fonderie (foundries), along the boundary wall south of the complex. In 1460 a monumental form was given to the entrance of the Arsenale, making the Porta di terra, an important example of architecture of the first venetian Renaissance. In that period was also completed a work of functional reorganization of the complex, about mainly the southern squeri of the Arsenale Nuovo.
Yards were made with double overlooking, water and earth, to make easier and dynamic activities of construction and maintenance of vessels.
Two of them were aquatic yards, intended for the works of construction of the hulls already able to float.
In the second half of the Fifteenth Century began a second impressive phase of enlargement of the Arsenal, with the creation of a wide dock toward the north, which extended the size of the assembly at about twenty hectares. The operations started in 1473, by the acting "Prencipio de l'Arsenal Novissimo" and went on for about a century.
The many yards made in that period assumed a connotation, in some aspects, homogeneous and particular, characterized by mighty circular pillars made of Istria stone; witness to this are the Tese della Novissima (1545 ‐1550) and the aquatic squeri of the Gagiandre (1568 ‐1573). The architectures devoted to yard, other realizations of value were added in those years, such as, for example, the Artillery (about 1561) and the new Corderie (1570-‐1591), an extraordinary building attributed to Antonio da Ponte, the portals of the Bucintoro (completed in 1555) and of the Artillery (1592 circa), characterized by an architectural language that draws the military constructions by Sanmicheli, the small votive of the Madonna del Paradiso (1577, demolished in 1809), built next to the water gate, at the end of a serious outbreak of the plague.
Between 1535 and 1569 in the north‐western part of the complex, he put his hand to a further enlargement, occupying the area of the gardens of the convent of Celestia.
The new area, called the Galeazze, accomodated six squeri for ships, arranged a three by three in front of each other, and was connected with a vast channel to the dock of the Arsenale Vecchio. At the end of the Sixteenth Century the whole of the Arsenale, consisting of the Arsenale Vecchio and by the extensions New, Novissimo and Galeazze, covered an area of over thirty hectares and had nearly 100 squeri.
At the end of the XVII century the galleys were no longer able to compete with the large round ships, which were now taking place in the Mediterranean and the north of Europe, both for the commercial function and for the military. The vessels, armed with more than seventy guns had become the new technological reference for shipbuilding. In the Arsenal then started a process of transformation that revolutionized the attitude of the whole. The entire south part, corresponding to the Arsenale Vecchio and the Arsenale Nuovo, was intended for deposits, the specialized tasks and minor shipbuilding; the northern part, corresponding to the Arsenal Nuovissimo and the area of the Galeazze, was intended for the construction of vessels.
The operation led to a transformation of most of southern squeri in warehouses and workshops, while those from the northern were doubled in height, to allow the construction of new vessels, larger, but especially much higher.
Around the middle of the Eighteenth century, on the strip of land between the Novissima and Galeazze, on a project by the Scalfarotto, it was realized the imposing building of the Squadratori (1739‐1750), profoundly changed in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. The building, originally thought for the function of storage and drying of conifer woods, arranged in a vertical, was subsequently adapted to other uses, first as a sawmill, and then as Sala dei garbi. After the fall of the Republic, 1797, in the first half of the Nineteenth Century there were significant interventions of the French, who built the tower of Porta Nuova (1810), by the engineer Lessan, and by the Austrians.
To the latter ones, between 1825 and 1839, under the direction of the engineer Casoni, we owe the important restoration works of the complex and the implementation of various buildings, between which it is to be remembered, for their special features, the Corpo di Guardia, with its neo‐classical prospect (now the Circolo Ufficiali) and the neogothic Torretta, between the Channel of Galeazze and the Old Darsena.
After the meeting of the Venetia to the Kingdom of Italy (1866) there was a revival of the activities of the Arsenal.
It was then created the Grande Darsena (Big Dock), demolishing most of the Tese of the islet that separated the Darsena Nuova from the Novissima; a significant extension was realized for the assembly for the construction of two dry docks; was annexed the Isola delle Vergini, on which were made the two great Tese of the coal (1873).
Among the transformations of this period, in addition to those of the Squadratori already cited for the realisation of the two building slip in stone (1877), we must remember those for the adjustment of the complex to the new processing techniques, and with the changing needs consequences. In particular: many of the Tese of the Stradal Campagna were transformed or rebuilt; two of Tese of Galeazze were rebuilt with new forms; two cranes in iron English production were installed, the Fairbarn (1874), a mechanical operation, and the Armstrong (1883), a hydraulic operation. The revolution introduced in artillery determined the advent of armoured ships, more than double the size of vessels.
Even the first few decades of the Twentieth Century were marked by important interventions, among which it should be remembered a further enlargement toward the north‐east, for the construction of a third and largest dry dock (1910‐1917), and from the processing also the squeri of the Novissima in warehouses
With the interventions Eight-‐twentieth was finally abandoned, for large vessels, the shipbuilding to covered, it is no longer compatible with the dimensions and characteristics of new warships.
With the Unification of Italy the Arsenal of Venice became part of a national system of defense maritime military, the fruit of a unitary project, with three poles in La Spezia, Venice, and Taranto. In the first half of the last century in the Arsenal of Venice was the start a first stage of decline. In those years still remained some shipbuilding activities of some importance.
Among these the construction of submarines, which represented the new frontier of military navigation.
These new features are connected the embodiment of housing the sommergibilisti on lagoon facing north, in an area outside the walls of the complex, and the barracks of sommergibilisti, made to the north of the drydock, but never finished, for the onset of the second world war and for the mutated military programs later. Between the two world wars, in 1932, the area of the basins was given in concession to the private shipbuilding. The concession was enlarged in 1957, granting even the quay of the novissima. The grant led to a sharp division into two parts of the complex arsenalizio, the military, to the south, and the private sector, to the north. Since then, the decline of the Arsenal was ever more consistent, up until the end of the years '70 of the last century. With the 1980 begins a new season for the Arsenal, which definitively abandons its original function as a shipyard in the search for a new identity.
text by Claudio Menichelli