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The Arsenale, rise and fallย 

Published May 20, 2022
Updated Oct 27, 2022

📍 🇮🇹 The Arsenale, rise and fall

Many visit Venice's Arsenale for the Biennale but few realize that the city owes its power to these hangars turned into pop art exhibits nowadays. Hundreds of ships were built there in the 11th-15th century, spies came from all over the world to steal naval techniques and plans. All guessing how Venetian seamen would defend the Byzantine Empire.

Venetians were not defending Byzance for free obviously: Pisans had to pay a 4% customs tax to Constantinople - 10% for Genoa even - while the same fee stood at a gentle 0% for Venetians (Crouzet-Pavan). No wonder why Asian markets were so accessible for Rialto traders, so profitable. No wonder why the fall of Byzantine Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 had such catastrophic effects on Venice's future.

In a way, Italian poet Dante foresaw this decline in 1300 when he compared the Arsenale to a "thick substance boiled in low Hell" (canto XXI). Much much later, in October 1786, right before Napoleon's final blow, German novelist Goethe described the sadness of boat craftsmen, "an ancient family that has survived but knows the era of sweets and flowers is behind". French author Chateaubriand could only audit damages after Napoléon's invasion: "all movement has stopped; furnaces extinguished, boilers gnawed with rust, rope factories without spinning wheels, building sites without constructions..."

Putting one last nail on that coffin in the 1920s, French novelist Marcel Proust remembered "that Arsenal pond so insignificant and distant, embodying a Venice without sympathy for me where I was to remain alone..."

History coming and going.

____ Sources ____

>> Dante, "Infierno", canto XXI, 1300
>> Goethe, "Italian travels", 1786
>> Chateaubriand, "Mémoires d'outre tombe", 1833
>> Proust, "A la recherche du temps perdu", 1927
>> Elisabeth Crouzet-Pavan, "Venise triomphante", 1999

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11th-20th CE