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Venice’s maritime power arose from a shipyard that with mass-production techniques, superb organization and skilled workers could launch two new ships a day.

In 1202, at the outset of the Fourth Crusade, the city-state of Venice accepted a contract from Italian count Boniface of Montferrat to transport 4,500 knights, their horses, 9,000 squires and 20,000 foot soldiers to the Holy Land in several hundred ships and to supply and feed them for one year with the support of 50 of its own war galleys. The ships were ready on time, and 30,000 maritime specialists—half of the adult population of Venice at the time—manned the fleet that sailed from its lagoon.

While the Venetians had constructed the formidable fleet largely in private shipyards, Venice did boast a small naval facility of 8 acres on drained marshland east of the city proper. Called the arsenal—derived from an Arabic term meaning “house of manufacture”—it was destined to become the most famous and feared military installation in the medieval and early modern world. By 1500 the shipyard/armory was the nerve center of the Venetian state and the largest industrial complex in the world. It employed production methods of unparalleled efficiency that long predated Henry Ford, including assembly lines and the use of standardized parts; vertical integration; just-in-time delivery; time management; rigorous accounting; strict quality control; and a specialized workforce.

Because of these innovations—as well as advanced shipbuilding skills and the unique cooperation of the Venetian people—the arsenal was able to produce incomparable warships with a speed and consistency unmatched by any rival. The arsenal enabled tiny Venice to dominate the Mediterranean and to become, for a time, the richest place on earth. It was the iron fist in Venice’s velvet glove.

The Venetian Arsenal’s origins are rooted in the city’s unique situation. Stretching across dozens of small islands, Venice was wholly dependent on the sea for trade and survival. Everything it required came by ship, and its entire population participated in the maritime life—from the wealthiest noble merchant to the humblest artisan.

Commercial rivalry and maritime war drove development of the arsenal itself. Within a century of the Fourth Crusade the facility had quadrupled in size. In 1303 and 1325 laborers added new basins, docks and slipways in an adjacent area of marsh, transforming the arsenal from a shiprepair and -storage facility into the state-managed center for shipbuilding and the provision of military resources. The city-state now required all galleys—the oar-driven vessels used for war and for such important commercial ventures as the spice trade—to be built at the facility.

The centralization of functions at the arsenal was revolutionary. Maritime activities traditionally carried out in small workshops scattered around a port were now consolidated in a central location protected by high walls, making the arsenal both factory and fortress. It provided for all stages of shipbuilding and repair, as well as the manufacture of sails, lines and oars. It held forges to create nails, iron fittings and weapons, furnaces for casting anchors and, later, cannon, and storage facilities to hold all the raw materials on which these depended.

The arsenal was physically and psychologically central to Venice. Townspeople experienced a daily reminder of the “house of manufacture” in the ringing of the Marangona (carpenter’s bell) atop the campanile in St. Mark’s Square—marking the start and end of each working day. Its workers, the arsenalotti, were aristocrats among workingmen, enjoying special privileges and direct contact with the centers of power. Supervising them was a team of elected nobility who lived on-site; their admiral, who directed the actual shipbuilding, wore a scarlet robe and held an honored place in ceremonial processions; and the state jealously guarded the arsenal’s greatest asset—its master shipwrights.

Central to the Venetian Arsenal’s production processes were specialization and quality control. Each skill had its own guild and qualification procedures. The principal guilds were those of the carpenters, who framed the ships; the caulkers, who planked out and sealed them; and the oar makers. Minor guilds represented the makers of masts, pulleys and gun carriages, the wood-carvers, sawyers, smiths and coopers. Even the rafters who poled felled trees downriver to Venice formed a guild.

The carpenters and caulkers underwent a rigorous apprenticeship, starting as young as age 10 and stretching six to eight years; becoming a master depended on a practical exam taken before the lords of the arsenal. The care with which the state oversaw each stage of production was a reflection of its deep respect for the sea. A ship, its crew and thousands of ducats of valuable merchandise could be lost through shoddy construction, so each team’s work was the subject of continuous oversight. Inspectors checked work daily, holding caulkers accountable for split seams, carpenters for snapped masts and rope spinners for weak lines. Poor quality was grounds for dismissal.

Ironically, fueling this exacting labor was a continuous supply of wine, distributed to the workstations by a team of a dozen men six times a day. Arsenal workers consumed a prodigious 600,000 liters of wine a year—accounting for some 2 percent of the city-state’s annual budget. By the 17th century, to the astonishment of visitors, wine was being dispensed from a fountain that could pump out 10 liters a minute, or more than 6,000 liters every shift.

The arsenalotti worked up to 11 hours per day in summer and six in winter. The core workforce comprised some 2,000 skilled men, backed by emergency extra labor and an army of unskilled laborers and porters. Despite the reportedly harsh working conditions, the arsenalotti enjoyed exceptional privileges. They were more or less guaranteed employment for life and benefited from Europe’s first pension system; no matter how old or infirm a man might be, he would be paid for just turning up. Nor was the arsenal solely the preserve of men. A workforce of perhaps 100 women cut, sewed and repaired canvas in the enormous sail lofts.

The stars of the whole arsenal system were the master shipwrights, who laid down each galley’s basic shape—the keel, frame and ribbing. With them rested the art and skill of shipbuilding. These men worked by eye and instinct rather than from drawn plans, and they passed down the secrets of their craft from father to son. Dynasties of these craftsmen continuously refined the Venetian war galley over two centuries into the most feared attack vessel afloat. Light, narrow, fast and maneuverable, the Venetian model was built above all for closing speed under oars—some 7 knots with a well-greased hull at 26 strokes a minute. The key lay in the shaping of the hull and the positioning of rowing equipment—benches, thole pins and rigging. Everything else, even seaworthiness, was secondary in the final attack. To gain ergonomic advantage, shipwrights designed the galley to ride low in the water; thus, it was a poor sailer in high seas, but in close combat it was superb.

Venice handsomely rewarded its most talented shipbuilders, and competition among them was fierce. At the turn of the 15th century, the leading shipwrights were the Baxons, a Greek family. Anticipating the death of patriarch Theodoro Baxon, Venetian officials preserved some of his galleys as prototypes and then tried to poach his nephew Nicolò Palopano from Rhodes. It took 17 years to tempt the latter to Venice, where he encountered fierce competition from homegrown master Bernardo di Bernardo. The state sent both men’s galleys to the fleet for evaluation, but it was the sea that would decide the contest: In 1437 Venetian officials dismissed Bernardo after several of his merchant galleys foundered in a storm. Nicolò’s designs prevailed. When he died, he passed his craft secrets to his son Giorgio. Succeeding him, in turn, were the Bressans, a Venetian family dynasty that dominated shipbuilding in the first half of the 16th century. The Bressans not only brought the war galley to a new level of perfection but also constructed innovative round ships with which to hunt pirates.

Minute attention to detail and relentless sea trials gave Venetian ships their edge. The state’s determination to control and integrate all stages of production extended right down to the raw materials. Wood supply was a matter of state security, as the fleet required vast quantities of oak for the framework, larch and fir for masts, and beech for oars.

The arsenal’s lumber requirements were prodigious—a single mature beech tree, for example, produced just six of a war galley’s complement of 180 thirty-foot oars. By the mid–15th century arsenal supervisors were managing Venice’s mainland forests, mapping wood supply to the level of individual trees and branding valuable specimens for state use. Carpenters visited the forests in person to select suitable trees; others ensured a supply of crooked oaks for keels and ribbing was available by training branches into the desired shape.

Similar attention was paid to rope. The best quality hemp came from Bologna, but it was expensive and under the control of occasionally hostile Florence. So in 1455 Venice hired an expert Bolognese hemp grower at a hefty salary, drained suitable land and trained the local peasantry in hemp cultivation.

Venice was ahead of the curve in keeping a permanent galley fleet at sea in the 14th and 15th centuries. Its peacetime active fleet was as small as 10 vessels, swelling to 25 or 30 in times of war, but its maritime dominance was largely unchallenged. All this changed with the 1453 Fall of Constantinople, which made Venice the frontline state in Europe’s ongoing confrontation with the Ottoman Empire. The wakeup call came in the summer of 1470 when Sultan Mehmed II, “the Conqueror,” arrived in the Aegean with an enormous fleet and took one of the Venetian republic’s most valued naval bases at Negroponte, near Attica.

The sense of calamity sparked by Ottoman conquest plunged the Venetian Arsenal into a new cycle of growth and innovation. In 1473 the state began an ambitious expansion of the facility. When it was completed, two and a half miles of 50-foot-high blind brick walls, topped by battlements, enclosed 60 acres of basins, covered hangars, workshops, supply depots and lumber yards. The arsenal became the nerve center of a vast war machine that consumed 10 percent of state revenue. Surmounting the ornate new gateway was a grim lion; though Venetian lions often held an open Bible, proffering peace, this one’s book was firmly closed. The message was clear: The arsenal was ready for war.

Visitors to this new facility were staggered by its size and the concentration of industrial activity. When Milanese prelate and diplomat Pietro Casola visited the arsenal in 1494, he observed in the munitions store “covered and uncovered cuirasses, swords…crossbows, bows, large and small arrows, headpieces, arquebuses and other artillery.” In one of the vast sheds used to store galleys he noted 20 compartments, holding “one galley only, but a large one, in each compartment.” In his journal, he further described the shipbuilding operations:

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.…In one great covered place there are 12 masters, each one with his own workmen and his forge apart; and they labor continually, making anchors and every other kind of ironwork necessary for the galleys and other ships. There seems to be there all the iron that could be dug out of all the mountains of the world. Then there is a large and spacious room where there are many women who do nothing but make sails…[and] a most beautiful contrivance for lifting any large galley or other ship out of the water.

Casola also saw the Tana, the hemp cable-making factory, a narrow hall 1,000 feet long, “so long that I could hardly see from one end to the other.” Visitors also toured the gunpowder mills (turned by horses), the saltpeter stores and the giant bombards. The immense production units and the sense of immaculate order impressed. It looked like a vision of the industrial future. And indeed it was.

The concentration of combustible materials and gunpowder within the arsenal—and the fear of sabotage—also required tight security. Night watchmen continuously patrolled the battlements, calling out to each other on the hour. Failure to respond could lead to instant dismissal. The fear of disaster was well founded. In March 1509, for example, Venetian historian Marin Sanudo was attending a session of the Senate several hundred yards away when an explosion rocked the building: “Two huge blasts of cannon and powder exploded into the air,” he later wrote, “so that the houses and the ducal palace and the stars in the sky shook.” Sanudo ran to the arsenal, where he witnessed terrible scenes. “I encountered the many bodies pulled from the ruins, some burned, some mangled, some without a head, without an arm, some half-crazy, unable to speak, with faces like Saracens, blackened by the fire, who were being carried out on planks.” One of the arsenal’s most highly regarded shipwrights was killed in the blast, which ignited when a worker sealing a cask with a hammer and nail sparked the powder.

The unrelenting pressure of the Ottoman menace, with its seemingly inexhaustible manpower and natural resources, forced the Venetian Arsenal into a furious half century of technical and organizational innovation.

The facility ultimately became a practical laboratory of mechanical engineering and the science of materials, attracting the great figures of the day. When Leonardo da Vinci came to Venice, the arsenal may well have experimented with his designs, including floating gun batteries on the river Po. A century later its shipwrights sought Galileo’s help to improve the mechanical efficiency of oars. The underlying issue was how to adapt their galleys to the new conditions of gunpowder warfare. The Venetians had observed how round ships, carrying cannon, could be a formidable presence in battle but were extremely difficult to combine with oared galleys. How to build galleys that could function as floating gun platforms and yet still move at reasonable speed?

In 1525 the lords of the arsenal commissioned an experimental ship from another scientific mind. Vettor Fausto was a mathematician and professor of classical languages with no practical shipbuilding experience. He proposed to use mechanical theory to create a heavy galley as fast as any light one by employing five oars to a bench, rather than the usual three. The experimental quinquereme was duly built and successfully tested, but it ultimately proved too expensive to build and too hazardous to its crewmen.

About 1550 the shipwrights tried another solution: transforming merchant galleys into heavily armed oared galleasses (think precursor of USS Monitor), with a forward wooden gun turret and cannon along its sides. Extremely ponderous under oars, the galleass nevertheless offered the potential of a heavier punch.

The arms race also raised the arsenal to a new pitch of efficiency, as administrators coordinated the storage of raw materials and introduced scrupulous accounting procedures and strict time-keeping measures (men who arrived late, for instance, weren’t paid). The shipwrights further standardized galley designs, enabling faster construction in larger batches by specialist teams. In 1537–38 the arsenal rolled out 50 hulls in just 10 months, an astonishing production rate. Meanwhile, interchangeable rudders, rigging and deck furniture replaced the one-off creations of individual shipwrights. The arsenal also rethought the storage of fittings and fixtures, setting aside a separate warehouse for each item and aligning the production stages in something approaching a linear assembly line.

With these systems in place, the arsenal moved to a just-in-time, prefabricated production system. Rather than keep a fleet in the water against the possibility of war, the arsenal kept a ready supply of planked and decked but uncaulked and unmasted hulls in the galley sheds. Each hull was numbered, and its respective parts—mast, rigging, rowing benches, hand weapons, cannons, flags, anchors— were separately stored and tagged with the same number.

This systematic counting, costing, storage and organization of a galley’s requisite parts was critical to the system, which drew increasingly on a hierarchy of sub-managers and gang bosses. At any one time the arsenal might be stockpiling, each in its own warehouse, 5,000 benches and braces, 15,000 oars, 300 sails, 100 masts and countless rudders, arms, pitch, cables and ironwork. The Venetians, bean counters to their fingertips, were masters of inventory; the gold standard was to have 100 galleys dry-stored in reserve.

When war broke out, the arsenal would ready its emergency fleet for action, rapidly caulking and greasing the ships before sending them down slipways kept perpetually clear. The final fitting of the ships was dramatic and very rapid. Workers raised and rigged the masts, and as tow vessels pulled each ship toward the lagoon past a line of warehouses, porters would pass out their respective fittings. Spanish traveler Pero Tafur witnessed a squadron of galleys being prepared in this way as early as 1436. One by one the hulls rolled into the basin, where teams of carpenters fitted the rudders and masts. Tafur then watched as each galley passed down the assembly line:

On one side are windows opening out of the houses of the arsenal, and the same on the other side, and out came a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows they handed out to them—from one the cordage, from another the bread, from another the arms and from another the ballistas and mortars—and so from all sides everything that was required. And when the galley had reached the end of the street, all the men required were on board, together with the complement of oars, and she was fully equipped from end to end. In this manner there came out 10 galleys, fully armed, between the hours of 3 and 9. I know not how to describe what I saw there, whether in the manner of its construction or in the management of the workpeople, and I do not think there is anything finer in the world.

The speed, efficiency, innovation and quality of the Venetian Arse- nal system saw its ultimate test after the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus. When war broke out in 1570, the emergency fleet of 100 galleys was at sea in just 50 days.

A comparison of Venice’s speedy mobilization with the far slower performance of its Spanish allies underlined just how revolutionary the Venetian assembly line was. Venice waited many months for the Barcelona arsenal to prepare its ships, a process the Venetian ambassador watched with mounting fury. “I see,” he wrote “that, where naval warfare is concerned, every tiny detail takes the longest time and prevents voyages, because not having oars or sails ready, or having sufficient quantities of ovens to bake biscuits, or the lack of 14 trees for masts, on many occasions holds up on end the progress of the fleet.”

Venice’s centuries of accumulated skill came to fruition the following year at the decisive Battle of Lepanto. On Oct. 7, 1571, the innovative Venetian galleasses first amazed the Ottoman admiral, then ripped holes in his front line; the light galleys on the left wing spun on their axes, pinned the Ottoman right against the Greek shore and obliterated it.

Lepanto was a victory manufactured in large part in Venice’s forge of war.


For further reading Roger Crowley recommends Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance, by Frederic Chapin Lane, and Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal, by Robert C. Davis.

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.