Venetian Arsenal in Venice

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The Venetian Arsenal was a complex of state-owned shipyards and armories clustered together in Venice in northern Italy. It was responsible for the bulk of Venice's naval power during the middle part of the second millennium AD. It could also be described as the first mass production complex using standardized and interchangeable parts.

General Overview

Construction of the Arsenal began around 1104, during Venice's republican era. Surrounded by a 2 mi rampart, laborers and shipbuilders regularly worked within the Arsenal, building ships that sailed from the city's port. With high walls shielding the Arsenal from public view and guards protecting its perimeter, different areas of the Arsenal each produced a particular prefabricated ship part or other maritime implement, such as munitions, rope, and rigging. These parts could then be assembled into a ship in as little as one day. An exclusive forest owned by the Arsenal navy, in the Montello hills area of Veneto, provided the Arsenal's wood supply.

The Arsenal produced the majority of Venice's maritime trading vessels, which generated much of the city's economic wealth and power, lasting until the fall of the republic to Napoleon's conquest of the area in 1797. It is located in the Castello district of Venice, and it is now owned by the state. In this respect at least, the Arsenal represented a huge breakthrough in the ability to mass-produce items, or in the very least, producing items at a scale that was unique to its time.

The Venetian Arsenal was not the mass production facility that it was to be until about 1320 with the creation of the Arsenale Nuovo. The Arsenale Nuovo was simply a larger and more efficient version of the original. However, its significance is not to be underestimated. Prior to this time the Arsenal had served mainly as a place to maintain privately-built ships. With the creation of the Arsenale Nuovo, and the development and introduction of the Great Galley, the Venetian Arsenal would start to take on its industrial form. The invention of the Great Galley itself is significant because they were able to be built frame-first. This process used less timber than the earlier hull-first building system, resulting in much faster build times. This was crucial to the process that would lead to the Arsenal becoming a mass-production center. By the 16th century, the Arsenal had become the most powerful and efficient shipbuilding enterprise in the world. Not only did it supply ships, rigging, and other nautical supplies, it was also a major munitions depot for the Venetian navy and was capable of outfitting and producing a fully equipped merchant or naval vessel in less than one day.<ref name=""/>

This is in stark contrast to the rest of Europe, where the production of a similar sized vessel could often take months. This amazing production capacity was a result of the massive amounts of people that the Arsenal employed, almost 16,000, and the streamlining of production within the Arsenal itself. Production was divided into 3 main stages: framing, planking and cabins, and final assembly. Each stage employed its own workers who specialized in that particular stage of production as well as using standardized parts to produce an almost assembly-line process. The Arsenal often kept up to 100 galleys in different stages of production and maintenance, that way once a galley was launched another could be immediately put into the finishing stages of production. The layout of the Arsenal itself was modified to enable minimal handling of materials during the stages of production. The Arsenal also saw the use of standardized, interchangeable parts. All of these things made the Arsenal one of first mass-production centers in the world and the source of Venetian wealth and naval power. Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the Arsenal was its employment of the moving assembly line. The galley itself, through the use of a canal, was moved along during its stages of construction, allowing the galley to be brought to the materials and workers, instead of the materials and workers going to the galley itself. This remarkable feature of the Venetian Arsenal was not seen again until the early 20th century when Henry Ford "invented" the modern assembly line.

Galileo and the Arsenal

In 1593, Galileo became an external consultant to the Arsenal, advising military engineers and instrument makers and helping to solve shipbuilders' problems, many of them relating to matters of ballistics. He was also responsible for creating some major innovations in the production and logistics of the Arsenal. As a result of his interactions with the Arsenal, Galileo published a book later in his life addressing a new field of modern science, that concerned with the strength and resistance of materials. This science largely saw its roots in the knowledge of the shipwrights of the Venetian Arsenal. It is also supposed that Galileo's initial visits to the Arsenal were as a result of his initiative to further investigate Aristotle's questions concerning shipbuilding and navigation, found in the Mechanical Questions of Aristotle. As a result of these investigations, which were pursued by observing the work of the shipwrights, Galileo was asked to help in resolving a specific problem with the rowing units of the galleys. As a result of his study of Aristotle, and in particular Question 4 regarding the propulsion of ships by oar, Galileo was able to produce a response to this question and ended up becoming a major source of information for the shipbuilders of the Arsenal concerning matters of rowing, instruments, and ballistics.

Venice's Naval Power

Venice's wealth and power rested in her ability to control trade in the Mediterranean. This would not have been possible without an extremely large navy and merchant force. By 1450, over 3,000 Venetian merchant ships were in operation, both as supply ships for Venetian merchants and as warships for the Venetian navy. This amazingly large amount of ships required constant maintenance and outfitting. The Venetian Arsenal was not only able to function as a major shipyard, but was also responsible for these routine maintenance stops that most Venetian galleys required. This required a large amount of money and the Venetian government spent almost 10% of its income on the Arsenal. However, this naval power resulted in the domination of Mediterranean commerce. Venice's leading families, largely merchants and nobleman, were responsible for creating some of the grandest palaces and employing some of the most famous artists ever known. This opulence and wealth would not have been possible without the naval force constructed by the Arsenal. Indeed with the creation of the Great Galley and the mass production capacity of the Arsenal, "the fleets of Venice were the basis for the greatest commercial power the European world had yet seen."

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