The Arsenale at Venice, 600 m east of the Piazza San Marco, is the most venerable of the great state-built shipyards of Europe. The earliest of its buildings supposedly date from 1104. It was then a yard for building and maintaining privately-owned naval ships, a concept derived from Islamic and Byzantine customs. From 1320 the buildings of the Arsenale Nuovo (new arsenal) were intended to service naval vessels owned by the state and privately-operating trading ships. The Arsenale Novissimo, begun in 1473, established new methods of constructing wooden ships, essentially by using standardized parts on assembly lines, that greatly influenced the spread of European naval superiority in the centuries that followed. Important developments in the manufacture of firearms also took place there. About 1600 the Arsenale employed some 16,000 workers, known as Arsenelotti. The formal entrance, the Porta Magna of c. 1460, was the first building in Venice to display the classical style of the Renaissance. Two covered slips and several warehouses with classical columns front the Rio d’Arsenale, and within the boundaries of the site are a sixteenth century ropeworks, ranges of hydraulic cranes and a power station. The Arsenale was painted in the eighteenth century by Francesco Guardi (1712-93) and Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768).
Parts of the complex were destroyed by the French in 1797 but were later rebuilt, and in the 1880s and 1890s some of the principal ships of the Italian navy were built there, but from 1900 contracts were given to private builders elsewhere in Italy. The principal base for Italian naval activity in the Adriatic is now Ancona, and the military occupy only a small part of the 32 ha site of the Arsenale, which amounts to six per cent of the total area of the city. The Thetis consortium of industrial companies and research institutes won European Union support for the adaptation in 1996-97 of four buildings to house a centre for the development of marine technologies.