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- The 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.

In order to recruit crew members, ship captains put a table on the dock in front of the Doge's Palace and offered advance pay, of generally three or four months. When the ship was about to sail, a town crier announced the fact for three to four days in a row around Rialto and the Basilica of San Marco. Those who didn't turn up, as quite a few deserted, were hunted down by the Lords of the Night, a sort of local police force, and were embarked by force or even arrested.

Merchant galleys were an expensive means of transport so the expense had to be compensated for by precious loads and by the prompt return of the ships. To reduce risks, the Republic put together an effective control system over trading companies, laying down very precise rules in order to avoid enterprises that were reckless or even fraudulent: in practice, it built the galleys, designed the trade routes and then organized a bid amongst those merchants interested in taking part in the enterprise. The interested parties met in a private room and under Senate supervision won the different participation shares.

This system split both risks and profits, forced merchants to collaborate so that the enterprise was a success and guaranteed the Republic economic returns that would cover the cost of the ships.