4.2 Women Sailmakers

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First case of female labourers at the Venetian Arsenal (16th–18th centuries)

For centuries the Arsenal of Venice represented the hub of the naval industry of the Serenissima, and it is considered the first large company of its kind in the Western world. It had an extraordinary work organization, which involved both men and women.

Despite the scarcity of sources, we know of many female workers in the Arsenal. They were, for example, vivandiere (vendors of food and drinks), calafate (those who waterproofed the ship’s hull) and, finally, our velere (women who made and repaired ships’ sails).

Unfortunately, it is almost impossible to quantify the number of these female workers: estimates assume there were anything from 25–40 to a maximum of 300–400 velere during the periods of Arsenal’s greatest activity. The velere, like other female workers, could enter the recinto (trans.: enclosure – the walls of the Arsenal) at a later time than the men. This was in order to avoid potentially sexually dangerous gatherings. However, we know that they could work well beyond regular hours at certain times, such as in conjunction with war events.

The velere worked under the supervision of old women and in spaces close to those of Ammiraglio (trans.: Admiral – Arsenal’s highest authority). This circumstance makes us think that these workers had to operate under observation. The velere were unskilled workers who did not enjoy any protection or representation since they were not part of any guild or trade association. The work was hard and heavy, they worked side by side with men (veleri), but women’s wages were lower. Moreover, given this gender promiscuity on the workplace, the velere were judged as women of ill repute.

Paola Lanaro
Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

Images layout: Vania Levorato
Ca’ Foscari University of Venice

4.2.a

“Venice is a fish”

Fig. 4.2.a – The writer Tommaso Scarpa is right: on a map Venice does look like a fish. The large square-shaped complex of the Arsenal is located right at the junction of the caudal fin.
(Jacopo de’ Barbari, Veduta di Venezia, Museo Correr, via Wikimedia Commons)

4.2.b

The Porta di Terra

Fig. 4.2.b – The Porta di Terra was the entrance of the Arsenal. Built in 1460, it is one of Venice’s first examples of Renaissance architecture.
Ph. Vania Levorato, 2022)

4.2.c

The Lion, the Saint and the Battle of Lepanto

Fig. 4.2.c – Above the winged lion of Saint Mark – the symbol of Venice – stands the statue of Saint Justina. The latter and the commemorative inscription “VICTORIAE NAVALIS MONIMENTUM MDLXXI” were added following the naval victory over the Ottomans in Lepanto in 1571.
(Ph. Vania Levorato, 2022)

4.2.d

The Piraeus Lion

Fig. 4.2.d – The Piraeus Lion was brought to Venice by Francesco Morosini in 1687. It was part of the war spoils after the siege and looting of Athens during the wars of the Holy League against the Ottomans.
(Ph. Vania Levorato, 2022)

4.2.e

A Permanent State Job

The Arsenal was a huge state industrial compound. Working at the Arsenal also meant enjoying uncommon benefits and privileges. For example, the arsenalotti (the Arsenal workforce) had permanent employments and could bequeath their positions to their sons.

Fig. 4.2.e.1 – The Maestri (trans., Masters) were craftsmen who worked for the Arsenal. They enjoyed great esteem and consideration by both the State and the population. They were the “working-class aristocracy” of Venice.
(Master of Arsenal, WDPC-NYPL – Digital Collections, ID 811671)
Fig. 4.2.e.2 – The arsenalotti enjoyed a fixed daily salary, the basic wage. Wages were paid daily or weekly and calculated by working hours and not by productivity.
(Giacomo Franco, Arsenal de Venise – la paie des ouvriers de la maestranza, WDPC-NYPL – Digital Collections, ID 811644)
Fig. 4.2.e.3 – We have no images depicting the women workers of the Arsenal. However, we can assume they were not very different from the female commoner in the Huyot print.
(Etienne Huyot, Venetian woman holding a basket of food (16th c.), WDPC-NYPL – Digital Collections, ID 811624)

4.2.f

The Porta d’Acqua

Fig. 4.2.f – Next to the Porta di Terra, there is the Porta d’Acqua. Until the Napoleonic period, this was the entrance for vessels needing repairs.
(Ph. Vania Levorato, 2022)

4.2.g

The Ancient Watchtower

Fig. 4.2.g –The Arsenal also had observation facilities. The ancient watchtower is located right at the entrance.
(Ph. Vania Levorato, 2022)

4.2.h

At the Peak of Development

The last significant extension of the Arsenal was made between the 1870s and the First World War. The modernization works carried out in this period include the excavation of the three dry docks and the installation of the Armstrong hydraulic crane.

Fig. 4.2.h.1 – The Arsenal as captured by Carlo Naya in 1880.
(Museo Fortuny, Fondi Fotografici Storici, inv. CF001418)
Fig. 4.2.h.2 – The exterior of the Arsenal during the summer of 1915. Sandbags protect the entrance as a measure against shelling.
(Museo Fortuny, Fondi Fotografici Storici, inv. FP001757)

4.2.i

From the Arsenal

Fig. 4.2.i – Leaving the Arsenal and walking along the Rio de l’Arsenal until reaching the Riva, with a bit of luck and good weather, it is possible to enjoy a sunset that has no equal.
(Ph. Vania Levorato, 2022)