So strong and formidable considering the date of its construction, was the natural outgrowth to that spirit of commerce and genius for barter. It was also a powerful auxiliary to the ambition of the Venetians; they had wished to make their sovereignty over the Adriatic sure; they were therefore bound to be ready at any moment to defend their pretensions, by sending against those who would dispute their claim a fleet strong enough to compensate for the weakness of their claim.
The Sieur de Saint-Didier, author of La Ville et la Republique of Venice, and an eye-witness of all that he relates, says that the arsenal gives the best idea of the power of Venice, and that it is the admiration of all strangers and ” the foundation of the whole power of the State.”
The Turks, who were the constant and powerful enemies of the Republic and who often brought her within an ace of destruction, always looked with envious eyes upon this establishment then unrivalled throughout the world; and when the Grand Viziers received the Venetian ambassadors, they never tired of asking for details regarding its organisation, resources and strength. Visitors to Venice would hurry to the arsenal to see its wonderful plan and colossal development; it embodied the moral strength of Venice, the symbol of her power, the source of her wealth; here you could lay your finger on the tremendous springs of her military machinery and realise the inexhaustible resources of a nation which had given all its energies to the construction and maintenance of a fleet greatly disproportionate to its territory, and whose supremacy over the waters embraced all the coasts of the Archipelago.
Of all modern nations the Venetians were the first to build strong vessels; even as early as the time of the Crusades, they undertook the transportation of French armies; and they had not merely to carry the troops but to provide escort and defend them at need. The heavy galleys had seventy-five feet of keel and the light ones were a hundred and thirty-five feet long; the coques, light vessels especially used for transport service, could carry as many as a thousand men-at-arms with their stores; the galeasses, which were rowed like galleys, had cannon-proof prows and were armed with fifty pieces of artillery of the highest known calibre; sixteen hundred soldiers could easily fight on board one of them. When such masses appeared on the scene of battle, their attack was irresistible and gained the victory. For more than a century, rival nations were unable to procure means of action powerful enough to oppose these Venetian warships; but, naturally enough, the Genoese, who were great navigators and, like the Spaniards and Turks, redoubtable enemies, endeavoured, in their turn, to arm ships powerful enough to sustain a contest and at last they succeeded. Thenceforward there was a continual development of methods of warfare, successive enlargements of the arsenal, and great improvements resulted from the stimulus arising from the rivalry of other nations. The Venetians remained the superiors in one thing,their artillery, and in every naval battle that they won, it is said that the fate of the day was due to the excellent marksmanship of the Venetian gunners. All their ships, even the lightest of them, were armed with cannon; the little galleys, so alert and useful in attack and which could enter the creeks of the bay, could also resist the shocks of the enemy, thanks to the fifteen pieces of artillery with which they were armed.
At first the arsenal was only a dockyard for the construction of merchant ships and galleys; it stood on the site of the ancient island Gemole or Gemelle (twins), in the eastern part of the town; the place was open for a long time before it was enclosed by walls and organised as a national establishment. Until then dockyards were improvised, wherever space could be found and wherever they were required ; thus in 1104 and 1298, fifteen large galleys were put on the stocks, in the place where the Royal Gardens now are, on the very edge of the water. During the Thirteenth Century, the arsenal was firmly established and the Senate devoted all its energies to enlarging it; neighbouring grounds were bought, new docks were dug, and dry-docks and repairing and building docks were added whose names show that they were annexed by degrees. Many a time the ruin of the arsenal was the ambition of the enemy; and incessant watch was kept over it; its square towers at the corners and its fortified walls were perpetually guarded by picked troops. Once it happened that during a war against the Genoese and Turks, spies or paid emissaries of the enemy tried to set fire to it. In 1428 we hear of the case of a Brabancon, who is said to have been bribed by the Duke of Milan to destroy the establishment; he was condemned to he quartered on the Piazzetta; and his body, tied to the tail of a horse, was dragged along the Riva dei Schiavoni. At the close of the Fifteenth Century, according to a traveller, who has left a descriptive memoir, Venice employed sixteen thousand workmen, caulkers, carpenters and painters, and thirty-six thousand seamen. It was about this time, in 1491, that the Senate created the special magistracy of ” Provveditori al arsenale.”
These magistrates remained in office two years and eight months, and they had to leave their Venetian palaces and live in three houses specially built for them, the names of which Paradise, Purgatory and Hell are still preserved. Each one had to be on duty a fortnight in turn, during which time he had to sleep in a special apartment in the ramparts. He kept the keys of the arsenal in his room, made the rounds, and answered with his head for the safety of the place. To these three magistrates was attached a secretary, il fidelissimo segretario del reggimento. The arsenal had but one en-trance; and the only way of gaining admission, short of scaling the high walls, was by means of a small iron gate that opened on the little cam po.
Everything concerning ship-building and armament, direction of the works, purchase of wood and iron, organisation of the workshops, discipline of the workmen, commanding of the troops, training of the seamen, storekeeping, provisioning and contracts was under the provveditori. They formed themselves into a committee for testing and examining all the new inventions submitted by their fellow-countrymen or by foreigners. The artillery formed a separate department, under the special management of another magistrate, the Provveditore all’ artigliera.
The outward appearance of the arsenal has hardly changed since the middle of the Sixteenth Century, as we learn from a curious engraving by Giacomo Franco, which represents the workmen leaving the yard after receiving their pay, and shows the same architecture and decoration that we see today, with, however, one exception : the great lions that ornament the entrance were not there then. These strange granite sentinels which give the building such a singular character, works of antiquity brought from Greece by the conquerors of the Peloponnesus and to which they did not hesitate to claim that their origin, or rather their original use, was to commemorate the famous Battle of Marathon, were not placed on their pedestals until the Seventeenth Century. The learned authors of the famous compilation Venice et ses Lagunes, say that one of the lions stood on the Lepsina road from Athens to Eleusis, and that the other, the one that is sitting, was at the Piraeus. The following quotation leaves no doubt regarding the Venetians’ seizure of these two trophies : ” The gate is now called Porto Draco, or Lion Gate, on account of a colossal marble lion that was placed on a large pedestal near the mouth of the harbour. It was ten feet high, sitting on his haunches and looking towards the South. As its mouth was pierced it is thought that it was originally a fountain. In 1687 this lion was brought to Venice by the Venetians and placed at the entrance of the arsenal of the city.”
The workmen were a picked body, and the Republic counted so much on their fidelity that the guard of the Grand Council and Senate was entrusted to them. They were soldiers as well as artisans, united under military organisation and brigaded and inspected in their work by the same men who commanded them as officers; and on many occasions this body of ten thousand sometimes as many as sixteen thousand men, was the secret guarantee of the internal safety of the Venetian government.
Side by side with the provveditore and subordinate to him was the admiral whose title was one of courtesy rather than function for he was an artisan ; however, he was an artisan of great skill and of high intelligence, and he was given the greatest authority. He superintended the works and had direction over the building yards, and enjoyed many much envied privileges. On ceremonial occasions, he wore a state costume that gave him almost the appearance of a noble: his robe was of red satin over which was a vestment that fell to the knees and on his head he wore a violet damask cap ornamented with a gold cord and large tassels.
At great public festivals and when the Doge, the Senate or visiting sovereigns paid a visit to the arsenal, the admiral occupied the place of honour, and always conducted the distinguished visitors to the docks which were his special domain. On the day of the Sensa, when the Doge, accompanied by the Council and the ambassadors, went with great pomp on board the Bucentaur, to wed the Adriatic, the admiral served as pilot. He was held responsible for bringing the Signory back safely to shore, and had the power, if the weather was threatening, of commanding that they remain in the lagoons without venturing into more dangerous waters.
The arsenal comprised three divisions: for ship-building, small arms and artillery. The Venetians surpassed all people of their day in construction and this superiority was attributed to two causes: the skill of the workmen and the quality of the timber they used. They adopted the plan of placing the administration of the forests under the naval department, and all other purposes for which timber is used, such as the building of houses, fuel, etc., were made subordinate. Timber was bought in the province of Treviso, in Friuli, in Carniola, in Istria and Dalmatia; but these provinces did not supply enough and they had to go to Albania and Germany as well. The timber, after being measured and stamped, was cut into solid beams and floated in the Adriatic near the Lido, where it was kept seasoning for ten years before it was used.
The different pieces of which a galley was constructed were prepared in the workshops ready to be put together, and the skill was such in the arsenal that, on the day that King Henry III. of France visited the arsenal (1574), while he was attending a banquet in the Great Hall in two hours a galley was put together and launched. It goes without saying that this was a prodigious feat, and that the governors would scarcely have entrusted the life of the Doge in it; but it was a means of demonstrating the powerful means of execution that they possessed. In times of political crises the activity here baffles imagination, and when the famous League was crowned by the victory of Lepanto, every morning for five successive days a new galley left the arsenal. To give an idea of the means employed to secure this degree of efficiency let us take one authentic detail: the State laid a permanent requisition on all crops of hemp grown upon its territories, and opened special storehouses for its sale, to which all purchasers were compelled to go to buy what they needed, at a price regulated by law, after the government had appropriated sufficient for its own needs. Hence arose the superior quality of the Venetian cordage over that of any other navy.
The armoury included the arming of the galleys, the manufacture, preservation and repairing of small arms, and, as in our modern arsenals, supplying the troops.
The artillery comprised the foundries, the training-school and parks for the gunners,all under the superintendence of the provveditore. In the Sixteenth Century, the foundries were under the direction of the famous brothers Alberghetti, who formed a regular school of cannon-foundry; artists like these impressed their own stamp on every piece that went forth, and thus it is that whenever one finds a gun of Venetian make in any of the artillery museums and collections in Europe, it is almost always a masterpiece, not only of casting but of design. In addition to these branches, there was a superintendent of military machines who was required to keep himself informed regarding all the inventions belonging to warfare.