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Arsenal

Great sailing ability and efficient economic organisation of the trading companies were just two of the factors that made the Venetian navy great. To guarantee itself supremacy of the sea, Venice had to be able to count on a third factor, just as important: the ability to build its own ships.

At first, Venetian ships were built in small private workshops; then, around 1200, these businesses were grouped into one single public shipyard: the Arsenal.

This huge structure employed designers, shipwrights and other specialised workers. The Arsenal workers, the so-called 'arsenalotti', were a community apart in the city, the depository of a precious heritage, handed down from generation to generation and jealously protected.

The drawing of the "Sesto", that is the design of the ship's hull profile, a very difficult operation, was done by the "Proto", the arsenal's true authority. The ship's success at sea depended on this stage and it required great experience. The shipyard organisation was highly advanced with work shared out among different sectors, quality control of raw materials, standardisation of many manufacturing stages and even history's first assembly line.

This complete, self-sufficient manufacturing cycle allowed the building of up to three large ships a day and guaranteed real superiority for Venice.

Venetian galleys or 'Galere' were light and agile. They couldn't carry large loads, but a full crew guaranteed the presence on board of about 200 men which made these ships pretty safe. Besides the Captain and the more expert sailors, the crew included crossbowmen, some merchants, a map-maker, a scribe, a doctor and naturally, the rowers, the so-called galley slaves. The present meaning of the term came from here, from the fact that the ships were at times the place were a forced labor sentence was served, from here the meaning of galleys (in italian 'Galeotti'), like prison.