08 June, 2006

16. Go the Gunners!

This magnificent Classical style gateway is the Porta Magna, the main entrance gate to the Venetian Arsenal, which was one of the keys to Venice's commercial and military power. The gate was built in about 1460 to a design by Jacopo Bellini, although the two lions flanking the door were added about two hundred years later.

At its height in the sixteenth century, this naval shipyard employed around 16,000 people and produced both warships and merchant ships at a prodigious rate, using assembly line techniques not seen elsewhere until the twentieth century. It was already active around 1200, which was why Venice was able to contract to build enough ships to transport the army of the Fourth Crusade (see the post 'Palazzo Dandolo' for why that crusade went pear-shaped).

In 1574, the newly-crowned King Henry III of France paid an official visit to Venice, and because Venice wanted France's support in restraining Spain's ambitions, the city pulled out all stops to impress him with its wealth, power, elegance, and wisdom. Early one morning, the king was taken to the Arsenal, where he witnessed the keel of a warship being laid. At sunset that evening, he was taken back to the Arsenal to witness that very same ship being launched down the slipway, fully rigged, armed, provisioned, and ready to go to war.

The Venice Arsenal didn't just build ships at a sustained rate of up to one a day, it experimented with different types of firearms and manufactured small arms as well as artillery – which makes the Football Club reference in the title of this post a bit more appropriate. The London-based Arsenal F.C. was originally founded near the London equivalent of the Venice Arsenal, the Woolwich Dockyard and Royal Arsenal. The club's original crest not only featured three cannons – hence their nickname 'The Gunners' – but, coincidentally, given that it is also Venice's primary symbol, a lion.


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