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The Heart of the Venetian State

Arsenale in Venice by Joan Blaeu, 1724

This first of all arsenals was founded in 1104, and is believed to have derived its name from the Venetian pronunciation of the Arabic darsina’a, or artisans’ shop. In later centuries the Arsenale grew to occupy 80 acres, surrounded by a forbidding 2-mile-long wall. Within this protected naval base, Venice’s fleet was built, maintained and refitted for each voyage; all provisions and equipment were stored here, as was the artillery, in an area nicknamed the Iron Garden. After the formation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1866, it continued to be an important naval garrison of strategic importance, as well as adapting to the times, building metal hulled battleships instead of the galleys of yore.

The Torri dell' Arsenale and Porta Magna, or Great Gateway of the Arsenale used to be all the Italian military allowed visitors to see of what the Senate called ‘the heart of the Venetian state’. Touted as Venice’s first Renaissance structure, it was built by Antonio Gambello in 1460 (better late than never, the Venetians say) who assembled his work out of older bits – four Greek columns, Byzantine capitals, entablature and floral reliefs. After the Battle of Lepanto, two new statues were added; and in 1682 the present terrace was introduced in front to replace a drawbridge.

This over the years became an honoured retirement home for old Greek lions: the two on the right, one bald and skinny with a silly toothless grin, and the other aged into an innocent Easter lamb, are originally from the Lion Terrace on the once- holy island of Delos, brought to Venice after the rescue of Corfu in 1718.

The larger two on either side of the entrance were brought back from Greece by Francesco Morosini after his troops blew the top off the Parthenon: the one to the right, a dead ringer for the Cowardly Lion of Oz, may once have stood on the sacred road to Eleusis, while the other, sitting upright with an expression like the decayed Errol Flynn in The Sun Also Rises, was the famous Lion of Piraeus; if you look very closely at his haunches, you can make out the runes scratched in 1040 by a member of the Byzantine Emperor’s Varangian Guard led by Harald Hardrada, future king of Norway.

Runes carved on the Piraeus Lion

The most ridiculous lion of all, however, is the bellicose Venetian feline in the Louis XIV wig over the gateway, whose parents must have been a winged poodle and a warthog. He jealously guards a closed book (so as not to reveal the pacific ‘Pax tibi Marce’ phrase).

Since 1980 the Biennale has gradually taken over a vast section of its empty shipyards as a space for exhibitions, arts events, music and the like, and the public can finally get to see much of the Arsenale.

The massive new premises, with timbered ceilings and crumbling brickwork, includes mostly 16th-century buildings – the Gaggiandre shipyards (attributed to Sansovino), the huge, 1036 ft Corderie or Tana (rope works, designed by Antonio da Ponte), the Artiglierie and Isolotto (former workshops), and the Tese (four enormous hangars with open-air slipways). The space also incorporates two theatres, including the vast Teatro alle Tese, which can be adapted for all sorts of performances. Near this is a 16th-century garden, the Giardino delle Vergini, newly linked to the rest of Castello by the Ponte dei Pensieri.

Recently, Venice in Peril has been restoring one of Venice's least known masterpieces, the Armstrong Mitchell Hydraulic Crane, installed between 1883 and 1885 and the last of its kind in the world. Hugely innovative when it was built (it was able to lift 160 tonnes, useful in constructing battleships). It was used up until the First World War, when it suffered heavy damage. The crane was repaired and used until finally decommissioned in the 1950s.

The gateway was used as a scene in Visconti's melodrama Senso (1954), the story of a lovelorn contessa (Alida Valli) pursuing an Austrian lieutenant (Farley Granger).

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vaporetto: Arsenale


Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: mararie, PD Art, Harshlight