Italy – Some Lessons From The Venetian Arsenal

IN the present European conflict the problem of the industrial organisation for war is the one which is engaging public attention to an unprecedented degree. By many it is regarded as an altogether new development, arising out of modern and more scientific conditions of warfare ; but, though these may have accentuated its importance, the efficiency of the industrial organisation has always, since mankind has emerged from barbarism, been a main element in securing victory. The workshop has always been of first importance in the successful conduct of war, and it is only the fact that it does not lend itself to picturesque literary treatment that has prevented the historians of the old school from giving proper attention to it. They have found it easier to interest their readers in the brave deeds of warriors, and in the character and cunning of their leaders, than in the more commonplace labour of the artificers who wrought the weapons by which victory was achieved.

One of the chapters of history in which the importance of the industrial organisation for war can best be studied is that of the maritime supremacy of Venice, which persisted for nearly eight centuries, in spite of the fact that many of the wars which itwaged were most disastrous. Rarely have there been more disastrous naval defeats than that in 1298 at Curzola, or than that in 1354 at Sapienza, where every vessel of the Venetian fleet was captured.

But in spite of these, and many other severe defeats, Venice always managed, within a comparatively short time, to recover completely the command of the sea, which was of vital necessity to her existence. This power of recuperation cannot be explained by superior strategy or seamanship. The Venetian system, which aimed at keeping down the really strong man, was not specially favourable to the production of genius, and, in their long history, the Venetian fleets had, as might well be supposed, their ordinary share of efficient and inefficient commanders. The seamanship was good, but it would be hazardous to say that it was superior to that of some of the rivals, notably the Genoese.

Nor can the power of recuperation be ascribed to advantages given by nature. On the contrary, in the essential materials for naval construction, timber, iron, and hemp, Venice was at a disadvantage when compared not only with the Byzantine and Turkish empires, with their endless resources, but also with the Italian rivals of Amalfi, Pisa, and Genoa.

These coast towns possessed considerable mainland territories, containing good local supplies of timber, whereas Venice was separated from the mainland, and in the first five centuries of its history acquired thereon no permanent foothold. It had to obtain all its supplies by sea, and these supplies were often liable to interruption, in the earlier centuries, by the Dalmatian pirates, who found shelter in the numberless islands of their coast, and in later periods on those occasions when, after naval defeats such as those we have mentioned, Venice lost temporarily the command of the sea.

The persistence of the maritime supremacy of Venice can only be ascribed to the superior efficiency of its industrial organisation for war, which was specially fostered by legislation subordinating the private to the public interests of the community. It is difficult in a short paper to describe adequately an organisation which underwent many changes in the long history of the Republic, but taking the early part of the fifteenth century as that when Venice was most powerful, we find it, at that epoch, laid down by law that all ships, whether belonging to the State or to private owners, had in their construction to comply strictly to standard measurements. Practically all ships were state-owned, as, though private owners were tolerated as long as they complied with the Government regulations, they were not encouraged. All ships were required to be not merely uniform in measurements and type, but absolutely identical in all particulars. At some periods of Venetian history a choice was allowed between two or three approved types, but in the period we are discussing, only one type, which was found most suitable for both commercial and fighting purposes, was permitted. Several advantages resulted from this complete uniformity in construction. The first was the complete convertibility of her mercantile marine and navy, which enabled the fighting forces of the Republic to be rapidly expanded in case of emergency. Economically this was quite sound. The Venetian merchantmen did the carrying trade of Europe, and on the outbreak of war their occupation was gone. It was obviously a well-thought-out system which at once converted them into men-of-war, instead of keeping them idle in port. At the first moment of peace the State let out the ships to the highest bidder at auction, so that they could at once resume their mercantile functions. The uniformity of construction had also a distinct tactical advantage, inasmuch as ships of identical burden and rig would all behave similarly in varying conditions of weather, and the squadrons could be relied on to keep together. This was equally important in peace time, as the sea was never free from pirates, and the merchantmen had to sail in fleets under convoy.

The standardisation of all parts of a ship enabled it to be constructed or put together with great rapidity and accuracy. It is recorded that in two hours, while Henry the Third of France was dining in the great hall of the Arsenal, a galley, of which the keel and ribs alone were in position, was entirely completed, equipped, and launched in his presence.

This was an exceptional feat, and the galley was no doubt intended only for the calm waters of the lagoons, but it is a historical fact that, in the hundred days before the battle of Lepanto, a galley left the Arsenal each day ready for battle. A similar advantage was gained in refitting and repairing vessels, the Venetian consuls in the various ports being provided from the Arsenal of Venice with a supply of standard masts, rudders, shrouds, and other fittings, which enabled them to meet all demands promptly and accurately. The most important result of this standardisation of all parts of which a galley was composed was that specialised training could be given in the manufacture of each part, leading to that minute subdivision of labour which is the first necessity of intensive industry. In the Middle Ages the Arsenal of Venice was famed throughout the world as the most perfect beehive of industry known in those days, and was visited by monarchs and other distinguished travellers. All parts of a vessel, the masts and yards, the anchors, screws, locks, keys, and rivets, as well as sails and ropes, were made there from start to finish. The Arsenal never employed less than ten thousand, and at times as many as sixteen thousand workmen, figures which, in those days, could not be equalled elsewhere. It was not merely a dockyard for naval construction, but the centre of the whole industrial organisation for war, and was so organised as to be able to supply at all times all naval wants without recourse to the assistance of any other institution, Venetian or foreign. The duties of the administractors, the provveditori all’ Arsenale, included everything appertaining to naval construction, the training of seamen, the supervision of the workmen, armament, the purchase of materials, provisions, contracts, and storekeeping. Later on a special department supervised the artillery, and a permanent committee was created for testing and examining inventions submitted to them by Venetians and foreigners. It is on record that among those who sent in models was Leonardo da Vinci.

The most interesting department was that of the provision and storekeeping of timber and hemp. As we have stated, the Republic started at an obvious initial disadvantage in having no local supplies of timber, but, in the course of time, the necessity to have recourse to foreign supplies was turned into a real gain, inasmuch as it gave a much wider power of selection, and enabled qualities of timber to be obtained continuously which were far superior to what any locally restricted supply could have given. Timber was brought to the Arsenal from Istria, Dalmatia, Albania, and even from Germany, and on its receipt was at once cut into solid beams, measured, stamped with the Winged Lion as State property, and then immersed in a deep sea-water basin near the Lido, where it was kept soaking for ten years, by which time it became impervious to warping influences. If not immediately required, it was then stored in immense warehouses, which still exist, and the State held thus ready for use for all emergencies a larger supply of seasoned timber of high quality than was at the command of any of its rivals.

In the earlier days of the Republic hemp was imported from the East, but later on it was success-fully grown on the territories acquired on the main-land, especially in what is now the province of Padua. To secure an ample supply, the State not only imported large quantities on its own account, but opened at the Arsenal warehouses where private individuals could store hemp of a certain grade without charge, the only consideration being the right of the State to pre-emption in the case of national emergency.

We find, as a consequence of these well-thought-out methods, the curious result that, though Venice started with disadvantages in obtaining supplies of timber and hemp, it was to her superiority in these materials that her rivals ascribed her supremacy at sea. According to a Spanish author of the early seventeenth century, the cordage of Venice had a life half as long again as that of Spain, and this was not due so much to superiority in grade as to improved methods of preparation and spinning.

We see that even in the Middle Ages the work-shop was of primary importance in the conduct of war, and the industrial organisation of the Venetian Republic deserves careful study. All systems have their defects, and in the writer’s opinion the rigid stereotyping of the shape and measurement of ships made it difficult for Venice to adapt itself to the gradual improvement in naval construction which took place after the discovery of the New World. Not that Venice was backward in inventing new types, but the change involved in the substitution of new and continually altering types was unsuitable to the system in force, and the complaint of the inferiority of Venetian ships is a common one in the history of the decadence of the Republic.