Dear Gentle Reader,
To understand Venice, the Serenissima, you have to understand the Arsenale.
First, click on this link to see an image of the main island.
Where the "A" is marked on the map is the Piazza San Marco, which is where the Doge's Palace and the Basilica of St. Mark are found. The Piazza is the apparent site of Venice's wealth and power.
See that big section to the right, with the artificial lake in the middle? That is the real source of power in old Venice. That is the Aresenale, powered by her workers, the Arsenalotti.
Look, if you did not click on the link above, you really ought to.
The map provides a visual perspective on spatial power dynamics in old Venice. Look at how big the Piazza is... Look at how big the Arsenale is...
If the size of your desk shows your power in the modern corporate battlefield, the size of your guns mattered in the battlefield of commerce in the preceeding millenium.
And the Arsenale was the metaphorical gun of the Serenissima (Venice).
The Arsenale was where the ships of the Serenissma were constructed. That artificial lake is where the newly-built boats were floated and loaded. Here is where the big guns were made, and the boats to carry them...
And you never ran guns, you sailed or rowed with them.
(You would run with them too... even in a maritime city state. Venetians controlled the sea and the land too. They needed to control land somewhere to get wood for their fleets and food for provisions and metals for her guns. So the Arsenale also made guns, from naval artillery to handguns.)
(Further, the Venetian Condottieri (mercenary leader) Bartolomeo Colleoni (1395/1400-1475) is credited with inventing the first horse-drawn artillery by having Venetian naval artillery reconfigured in the Arsenale for his land troops. Back to the story...)
It was known, in Venice, that power came from the barrel of a gun long before Chairman Mao coined his pithy phrase.
Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong in pinyin transliteration) was, after all, a librarian at Beijing University in the beginning. He knew his history.
And history, in the medieval world and in the Renaissance, was made by the most powerful. From the twelth to the seventeenth centuries, the Republic of Venice, the Serenissma, was one of the Great States, sometimes the greatest, in the West.
The Serenissma had power emanating from a tripod of:
(1) vast wealth derived from monopolistic control of the Eastern trade routes (providing precious commodities like silk, spice, and scents, not to mention new technologies);
(2) diplomatic contacts derived from her experience in establishing and maintaining her monopolies, her network of safe fortress harbours, and the lands needed to provide her with the resources to build and maintain her fleets; and
(3) Venice had the firepower (ships and guns from the Arsenale) to maintain the safety of her commercial fleets, ports, and commercial/diplomatic interests.
The Serenissma defined the military/industrial/governmental complex long before America's involvement in Vietnam...
The Arsenale occupied over 6.2% of the main island of Venice's total landmass. Its workers, the Arsenalotti, numbered almost 16,000 by the early 1500s and they could produce almost one war vessel per day at their period of peak productivity.
It might be useful to put this into perspective.
The most important naval battle, from a Western viewpoint, of the European Renaissance was the third Battle of Lepanto in 1571.
In 1571, at the Battle of Lepanto, the Ottoman Empire was finally defeated in a five and half hour battle at sea. Control of the Mediterranean, and the wealth of the East, was restored to the West again, much to Venice, although Spain via the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, took much of the credit.
The balance of geo-political power and mercantile power shifted back to Christian powers from the Islamic powers as a result of this battle.
Essentially, power shifted as a result of this one, lop-sided naval victory as the West captured or sunk the Ottoman Fleet, and though the Ottomans had the physical resources to rebuild, which they did rapidly, they lacked the experienced officers corps afterwards, as that had been irreparably lost in the Battle of Lepanto.
The Battle of Lepanto (the third, victorious battle, and, largely, the only one quoted in the West) was the last major battle with largely oar-powered vessels and it was the greatest naval conquest of its time.
The Holy League's fleet consisted of 206 galleys and 6 galleasses. The galleasses were huge merchant galleys transformed so that they could carry heavy guns on their flank, in addition to their regular complement of guns.
The galleasse was the aircraft carrier of its day, exuding military power and extending the scope and range of naval power through its heavy artillery armaments.
The Ottoman Empire's fleet consisted of 222 war galley and 56 galliots. Galliots were, essentially, lesser Galleys that carried less men and both fewer and smaller cannon.
Let me paraphrase that succintly...
The total Holy League fleet consisted of 206 plus 6. The total Ottoman Empire fleet consisted of 222 + 56. The fleets in battle, therefore, consisted of 428 galleys, 6 galleases, and 56 galliots.
Of this number, Venice contributed 109 galleys and 6 galleases. Those 6 Venetian galleasses alone, apparently, sunk over 70 Ottoman galleys.
And the Arsenale, at its peak, pumped out nearly a ship a day for almost four months.
That is why, to understand the Serenissima and her power, you have to understand the Arsenale.
The Arsenale was likely born in 1104 when a fire swept over the main island of Venice and destroyed many dockworks, allowing for new ideas upon reconstruction.
With its development, the Venetians created a variant prototype of the assembly line (the assembly line would, later, propel Henry Ford to fame and incalcuable wealth when he founded the Ford Motor Company much later, in June of 1903).
(Venetians also produced ships in more colours than black.)
Specialized labour (the Arsenalotti), specialized work sites arranged sequentially, and specialized storerooms marked the Venetian military/industrial complex of the Arsenal out for prodigious productivity.
Interestingly enough, the Arsenalotti were well-paid workers who were also recruited, not conscripted, along with guildsmen of the Republic of Venice, to work the oars of Venice's mighty war vessels, when the need would arise.
All Venetians enjoyed the wealth and the prestige of Venice and all would do what was necessary to defend their rights and privileges.
The Arsenalotti were well paid because their work was so valuable to the state, and because it was so hard.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the Florentine poet and father of the Italian language, was escorted past the entrance of the Arsenale. His observations on the workers formed the basis for Canto 21 of the Inferno, the first in his trilogy, the Divine Comedy. As you well know, the subject matter of the Inferno is Hell, and the lost souls in it who are tormented by devils and demons. The Divine Comedy is a literary guidebook to Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, as imagined by Dante.
A copy of Canto 21 (it is short) is found at the end of this posting, watched over by a wonderful demon which your humble scribe found sticking out of a wall.
And that, Gentle Reader, forms todays post.
Your humble scribe ends here, but gently hopes you will continue reading the Canto, below.
Imagine the workers slaving away (as free men of the Republic) to build a warboat a day for the glory and wealth of their state.
Further, imagine lost souls in Hell, truly slaving away, as Virgil guides Dante through Hell, showing him the sites as they go...
The demon (shown below) was supporting a marble remembrance shield, on the island Cemetario, where the dead are buried, on the back side of the Venetian lagoon.
Interestingly enough, the only way to see this demon was to lie on the ground and look up. This was a particularly unpleasant task on that particular day as that was the one day that snow had fallen, and slush lay thick and wet on the ground.
What suffering is given for thee, Gentle Reader? Great suffering and privation indeed. But I think it was worth it...
The excerpt, Canto 21 from the Inferno by Dante Alighieri, has been moved to here... so that this post looks shorter... (It is now the previous post by 5 minutes.)