The art of shipbuilding is a Venetian tradition dating back as early as the city itself. Boats are hand-crafted at boat building sites known as squeri the largest of which is the Arsenale, founded in 1104 A.D., once the major boat production and repair centre of Venice and still standing today. At the height of its power, the Arsenale employed over 16,000 people, turning out on average one boat a day. Primarily a naval base today, it is located next door to the Naval History Museum of Venice and very close to the site of the Art Biennale.
Dante was one of the early visitors to the Arsenale and was inspired by seeing the hot pitch used in the caulking of ships which he introduced into one of the cantos of the Inferno. Many British grand tourists visited the Arsenale to study Venetian techniques of boat building such as John Evelyn in 1645, who described it as “one of the best furnished [boatyards] in the world”. In the second half of the eighteenth century when Goethe and the bear-leader Dr. John Moore visited the Arsenale, Venetian maritime power was on the wane and Goethe observed that “its best time of blossom and fruit has passed”, although there was still an air of bustle and “much that is remarkable”. Dr Moore was less impressed, particularly by the Bucentaur which “is kept under cover and taken out but for the espousals” [the annual procession celebrating the marriage to sea]. “The vessel”, observed Moore, “may be admired by landsmen, but will not much charm the seaman’s eye, being a broad-bottomed machines, which draws little water and consequent may be easily overturned in a gale of wind”. To the British, the Doge’s espousal of the sea seemed pretentious and wags pointed out that the Adriatic “like a lewd whore” now shared her favours “with bolder prows than his”.
The Arsenale is entered through a grand gateway guarded by stone lion’s over which can be seen the figure of the lion of St Mark with his gospel book symbolically closed to hide the “Pax Tibi Marce” exhortation. The earliest Renaissance structure in Venice, it found an unlikely admirer in Ruskin. To hear Goethe’s account of his visit, play the audio below: