Blog-post author Laura Grazia Di Stefano, University of Nottingham, UK
Pilgrims vs Venetians: a history of hidden truths. The inspections of the galleys and the “visits” to the Arsenal.
Since the thirteenth century, each pilgrim who departed from Venice towards the Holy Land was involved in that social and economic process seen by Venetians as the “normal administration” of business. The transportation of pilgrims, initially treated as an occasional form of income linked to Mediterranean trade, became a permanent activity after its official regulation by the Doge Jacopo Tiepolo in 1233. From that moment onwards, the Venetian government needed to organize pilgrims’ arrivals and departures according to official laws as well as to handle unexpected problems such as the curiosity of pilgrims not only towards the “religious side” of Venice, but also towards its naval industry.
Because of the length of the journey and the dangers of the sea-crossing from Venice, pilgrims often raised concerns about the construction of the galleys, their safety and the sailing experience of the crew, asking to check the means of transport with their own eyes. For that reason, the Venetian government formalised a double inspection of the galleys intended for the Holy Land. Indeed, by the end of the fourteenth century pilgrims were authorised by the Venetian senate to inspect the allocated pilgrims’ galleys and choose the one they retained as “trustable” not only according to the physical appearance of the vessel, but also to the condition of travel offered by the Venetian patron (e.g. route followed, number of meals on board etc.). Prior to this inspection, officials of the Venetian government checked that each galley was bona et sufficientia pro peregrinis. Nevertheless, the legislation does not specify whether the Arsenal was considered as the location where the inspections were to be carried out and, in this regard, no information is given about the authorisation of pilgrims to visit the Arsenal either as part of a touristic visit, or as part of the galleys’ inspection process. However, some of the most famous fifteenth-century pilgrims such as William Wey, Bernard von Breydenbach and Pietro Casola stated they were able to visit the Arsenal. In fact, this was only partially true. Indeed, while the entire Venetian lagoon ran into open waters, the Venetian Arsenal was the only part of the city protected by walls and military personnel.
During the Middle Ages, it was considered the heart of the Venetian military industry and commercial sea power; guided visits within were usually strictly forbidden, and granted, with permission, only to illustrious and trustworthy personages. Furthermore, due to a huge expansion of the Arsenal in the late fifteenth century, Venetians became even more protective of their “construction secrets” and the government did not trust even its own merchants and craftsmen. As proof of this distrust, at the end of fifteenth century the Senate enacted different laws to avoid the construction of “foreign Arsenals” even in places under the same Venetian control such as Candia or Cyprus. The legislation was addressed to those families of merchant and Arsenal workers who went in terre et luoghi alieni per guadagnare […] a grandissimo danno della signoria nostra (in foreign places to make money to the detriment of Venice). The punishment for revealing the Arsenal’s secrets or for construction of vessels out of Venice was banishment from the city and a fine of 500 ducats. Therefore, due to these restrictions, visits to the Arsenal were rare for common pilgrims who were likely authorised to explore only the zone just beyond the Arsenal’ s monumental “land door” that operated the passage of people and vessels since the mid-fifteenth century (Fig. 1).
It is likely that the Venetians, in order to satisfy the curiosity and needs of pilgrims, organised the inspections of the galleys as well as “visits” to certain more accessible areas of the Arsenal. For instance, the English pilgrim William Wey wrote, “In the city they have a large area where they build the galleys to defend our Faith. I saw eighty galleys there, either completed or still under construction. Below that place, they have huge buildings for stores of all types. These are full of the various kind of equipment needed to defend our Faith”. William Wey’s description gives the idea of a panoramic tour of the Arsenal rather than a detailed visit of the various pavilions. Similarly, Pietro Casola, who gave a more precise description of his visit, described seeing in the Arsenal “three large sheds […] where the galleys are placed all together” and “a great crowd of masters and workmen who do nothing but build galleys or other ships of every kind”.
Vague descriptions of the Arsenal in such fifteenth-century narratives confirm that what pilgrims described as “visits” were actually basic tours of the “less military” Arsenal’s areas, probably the ones with the production warehouses and disposition of the galleys scheduled for departures. This emerges clearly from the description made by Breydenbach, who states that he experienced in the Arsenal “the power and circumspection of Venice” conveying to his readers that despite being allowed to witness a measure of its inner working, Venetians were too prudent to reveal their military secrets to foreigners such himself. Indeed, until now, the Arsenal’s military zone remains a separate, inaccessibile and patrolled area despite its proximity to the public area (Fig. 3-4).
- Venice, Marciana Library, Statuta Domino Jacobus Teupolus 1233, Codice Membranaceo cxxx, Classe V, c.37
- Venice, Archivio di Stato, Ufficiali al Cattaver, Busta 2, Volume C, Pro Tholomagys et Peregrinis, folio lxxv
- Venice, Archivio di Stato, Archivio proprio di Giacomo Contarini, Folder 22, Leggi vecchie circa la fabbrica delle navi, Doc. 2
- Von Breydenbach Bernard, Peregrinationes. Un viaggiatore del quattrocento a Gerusalemme e in Egitto (Roma, 1999)
- Casoni Giovanni, Breve storia dell’Arsenale (Venezia, 1847)
- Davey Francis, The itineraries of William Wey (Oxford, 2010)
- Davis Robert C., Shipbuilders of the Venetian Arsenal: Workers and Workplace in the Preindustrial City (Baltimore, 2009)
- Lane Frederic C., Venetian Ships and Shipbuilders of the Renaissance (London, 1992)
- Sanudo Marino, Venice, Cità Excelentissima. Selections from the Renaissance Diaries of Marin Sanudo (Baltimore, 2008)
- Newett Mary Margaret, Canon Pietro Casola’s Pilgrimage to Jerusalem in the year 1494, (Manchester, 1907)
- Sacerdoti Adolfo, R. Predelli, Gli statuti marittimi veneziani fino al 1255 (Venezia, 1903)