Hidden Places 1 – Into the Arsenal

On this trip to Venice I’m trying to catch up on some of the things that I’ve never managed to do in the past.

For a start, I’ve never been in Venice at Easter, so the opportunity to go to a full scale Patriarchal High Mass in Saint Mark’s Basilica was something not to be missed. Whatever one’s religious inclination (and mine are pretty non-existent) this was a wonderful chance to see the Basilica in all its pomp – ablaze with light, heavy with incense, filled with ethereal music and with nearly two hours to sit and stare at the mosaics and decorations. The whole effect was mesmerizing and utterly unlike the normal, rather dark and rushed, tourist visit.

The top-most towers on the north side of St Mark’s Basilica, recently cleaned.

A corner of the city that I had never properly penetrated was the Arsenale. Nowadays some of the huge warehouses here are used as exhibition space, especially by the Venice Biennale. As the Biennale isn’t happening for some weeks (although the preparations are very much in evidence around the city) we took the chance to visit another art exhibition being held in several of the warehouses at the north of the Arsenale complex. Long years ago the only way to see the interior of this vast area was on the No 5 vaporetto, which – in its circular tour of the city – was allowed to go straight through the magnificent main gate of the Arsenal and out into the lagoon through its northern portal. The rest of the Arsenal was a military area and very heavily restricted.

The great gateway of the Venetian Arsenal, through which the newly completed ships would sail.


Just a corner of the vast complex of the Venetian Arsenal

Now the huge warehouses and manufacturing areas where the Venetian fleet was constructed and maintained are gradually opening up, with many of the spaces being use for conferences, corporate entertaining and exhibitions. These are enormous, linked spaces, with high pitched roofs and still with traces of forges and other industrial processes. Amongst these buildings sails were made, ropes twisted, provisions stocked, wood hewn and carved, nails hammered and pitch boiled. Even seeing a tiny proportion of these buildings gives you a new idea of just how impressive this remarkable production-line approach to shipbuilding must have been.

Three vast, linked warehouses in the Arsenal, where ships’ sails were stretched during manufacture.

The oft-told story of how King Henry III of France was royally entertained by the Venetians on his visit in 1574 included his being shown, first thing in the morning, the timbers of a new ship being laid down. Then, after a sumptuous all-day, all-you-can-eat banquet he was taken back to the main gate of the Arsenal that evening to see the completed ship come sailing through; rigged, manned, provisioned, with sails unfurled, cannon at the ready and complete in every way. Now that I’ve seen something of the size of the operation – even if only a tiny part – that story seems ever more credible.

The Lion of St Mark. The symbol of Venice and ever-present around the Arsenal – just to remind the workers who they were working for!