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A Call to Arms

At the height of its intervention on the mainland, Venice could maintain a force of forty thousand troops. It was estimated by the reigning doge, in 1423, that the city possessed thirty-five galleys, three hundred round ships and three thousand other vessels; they required a complement of thirty-six thousand sailors, almost a quarter of the entire population of 150,000 people. There were ships christened La Forza, La Fama and La Salute. They were used to protect the armed galleys of the trade convoys that left Venice on prearranged dates; they were used to combat pirates and to harass enemy traders. No foreign ship was safe in the waters Venice considered its own. The officers were elected from the patrician class of the city. Service at sea was an indispensable part of the education of the young patrician.

The crews were at first all free men, volunteers found in Venice or in Venetian possessions. By the beginning of the sixteenth century conscription had been introduced. This of course so lowered the status of galley labour that it became a burden to be avoided. To be an oarsman, a galeotto, was considered to be part of a “low” profession. So by the middle of the sixteenth century there was a change in the nature of these crews. It was said that they comprised drunks and debtors, criminals and other outcasts. The courts of Venice sometimes consigned the guilty to the galleys rather than the cells. By 1600 prisoners made up the principal part of the crew. The measure of their servitude can be computed by the records of the Venetian courts—eighteen months of galley service was considered equivalent to three years of close imprisonment and a period in the pillory, while seven years in the galleys was considered to be equal to twelve years of confinement. Their rations were made up of biscuit, wine, cheese, salt pork and beans. The diet was designed to feed the sanguinary humour. A Franciscan friar was always on board to rouse them. Yet there are reports of disease and of early death, of exhaustion and despair. Carlo Gozzi, in the eighteenth century, saw “some three hundred scoundrels, loaded with chains, condemned to drag their life out in a sea of miseries and torments, each of which was sufficient by itself to kill a man.” He noticed that, at the time, “an epidemic of malignant fever raged among these men.” It is not clear, however, that the changed personnel were in general any less proficient as oarsmen. They helped to win a famous victory against the Turks at Lepanto.

The maritime marvel of Venice was the Arsenal, the greatest shipbuilding concern in the world. The word itself derives from the Arabic dar sina’a, or place of construction, thus affirming the strong connection of Venice with the East. It was built at the beginning of the twelfth century, and was continually being extended and expanded until it became a wonder of technology. It was variously described as “the factory of marvels,” “the greatest piece of oeconomy in Europe” and “the eighth miracle of the world.” The epithets are a measure of the respect in which new technologies were then held. Its famous gate, made up of Roman and of Byzantine elements, was raised there in 1460. The Arsenal had become the centre of another empire. It was the engine of trade. It was the foundation of naval might. It was a token of the supremacy of industrial enterprise in the most serene city.

Eventually two and half miles (4 km) of walls, and fourteen defensive towers, surrounded sixty acres (24 ha) of working space. It was the largest industrial enterprise in the world. A population of skilled workers and labourers grew up around the site. The number of workmen has been estimated at anything between six thousand and sixteen thousand; in any event they worked in large numbers. This shipbuilding neighbourhood in the eastern part of Venice became a recognisable part of the city, with its own prejudices and customs. People lived and died, were baptised and married, within the three parishes of S. Martino, S. Ternita and S. Pietro. It is still an area of tiny houses, crowded tenements, small squares, dead-ends and narrow alleys.

The inhabitants became known as arsenalotti, and such was their importance to the state that the male population of ship-makers was also used as a bodyguard for the doge. They were also employed as fire-fighters. Only the arsenalotti were allowed to be labourers in the Mint. They alone rowed the ceremonial barge of the doge. Proud of their status, they never united with the other artisans of Venice. It is a case of divide and rule. It is also a signal example of the subtle way in which the leaders of Venice co-opted what might have been an unruly group of people within the very fabric of the city. The loyalty of the arsenalotti materially helped to secure the cohesion and the very survival of Venice.

The Arsenal was the first factory established upon the assembly line of modern industry, and thus the harbinger of the factory system of later centuries. One traveller, in 1436, described it thus:

as one enters the gate there is a great street on either side with the sea in the middle, and on one side are windows opening out of the houses of the arsenal, and the same on the other side. On this narrow strip of water floated a galley towed by a boat, and from the windows of the various houses they handed out to the workers, from one the cordage, from another the arms …

It was known as “the machine.” The armed galleys were constructed here. The relatively unarmed “round” ships, with sails instead of oars, were also made here. The key to its efficiency lay in the division, and specialisation, of labour; there were shipwrights and caulkers, rope-makers and blacksmiths, sawyers and oar-makers. Thirty galleys could be built and fitted within ten days. When the French king visited the place in 1574, a galley was built and launched in the two hours it took him to eat his dinner. The whole process of industrial collaboration, however, might be seen as an image of the Venetian polity itself. Everything is of a piece.

Dante visited the Arsenal in the early fourteenth century, and left a description of it in the twenty-first canto of the Inferno:

As in the Arsenal of the Venetians

Boils in the winter the tenacious pitch …

One hammers at the prow, one at the stern,

This one makes oars and that one cordage twists

Another mends the mainsail and the mizzen.

It may not be coincidence that Dante places this vision in the eighth circle of hell, where corrupt public officials are punished eternally. The blatant sale of public offices became a problem in Venetian governance.

Eventually the Arsenal was outmoded. The development of craft technology in the seventeenth century rendered it obsolete. It continued producing galleys when no galleys were needed. It became inefficient, its labourers underpaid and underworked. Yet it did not finally close until 1960, when eleven thousand families were removed from their ancient neighbourhood. Now the factories and production lines are used to house exhibitions for the various festivals that visit Venice. It is an apt token of the nature of the city.

The Venetian army was as effective by land as the Venetian navy on the oceans. By the middle of the fifteenth century it could afford to maintain a standing force of twenty thousand troops, with extra militia ready to be called up in an emergency. By the beginning of the following century, that number had doubled. It was of mixed identity. Venetian engineers were well known for their skills in siege weaponry, but it was said that the Venetians themselves did not make good soldiers. To a large extent, therefore, the city relied upon mercenaries for its defence. Its soldiers came from Dalmatia, Croatia and Greece as well as from Germany and Gascony; there were light horse from Albania and cuirassiers from other parts of Italy. When some Venetian gunmen were captured at Buti in 1498, and their hands cut off, some of the unfortunate troops were from England and Holland.

The acquisition of a land empire, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, was the direct motive for the creation of a standing army. Yet such an army posed problems for the leaders of the city. An army could move through its streets. An army could threaten its mainland possessions. That is why no Venetian was ever made general or commander. The danger of a military coup was always present to the administration. Venetian patricians were not allowed to command, at any one time, more than twenty-five men. It was a safeguard against faction. Instead a foreign commander was always chosen, although he held his office under the watchful care of two senior patricians in the field with him. It was not an ideal arrangement, especially in the very heat of battle, but it served Venetian interests well.

The foreign generals were known as condottieri, from the Italian word for contract. They were contracted men. But they were also adventurers, and sometimes brigands, who were suited to the theatre of Venice. They aspired to the type of the classical Roman general, ferocious in war and gracious in peace; they were deemed to be no less wise than courageous, no less virtuous than judicious. And they were paid well. Venice was known as a generous, and prompt, employer. The condottieri were given ornate houses along the Grand Canal, and were granted large estates on the mainland. They seemed to be indispensable to the state, but there were some who questioned the wisdom of employing them. They could be persuaded to change sides, if large enough bribes were offered, and they could sometimes be feckless and excessively independent. Machiavelli blamed the collapse of Venice, in his lifetime, on the use of mercenaries and mercenary commanders. If the Venetians did not excel at warfare, they would soon become deficient in the arts of peace. Sir Henry Wotton, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, commented that “by the lasciviousness of their youth, by the wariness of their aged men, by their long custom of ease, and distaste of arms, and consequently by their ignorance in the management thereof” the Venetian state was in sad decline. Yet decline was always being predicted for Venice, even at the acme of its power.

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