Campo de L’Arsenale, in Sestiere Castello, Venice, lies just south of the Arsenale entrance across the Rio De L’Arsenal, and is bounded on the east by the Rio Dell’ Arsenale, the historic main water entrance to the vast historic naval base of Venice, the Arsenale. That name was derived via the unique Venetian dialect from the Arabic word for “workshop”, darsina’a.
The quiet residential parish of San Martino, with its three to five-story stuccoed residential buildings, provides the neighborhood background for the Campo. Bounded by the Riva Da’ Di Dio and Bacino di San Marco to the south, and Rio Ca’ Di Dio on the west, this small island is shielded to the north by the great wall of the Arsenale. This island community pre-dates the original Arsenale, and its original plan is obscured by the overbuilding of navy support facilities and canal adjustments to accommodate the shipyards themselves.
The parish church, San Martino, is dedicated to St. Martin of Tours. He is renowned for having cut his cloak in half in order to share it with a beggar. The original church was built in the 10th Century by residents newly arrived from the mainland in the face of the Lombard invasion of Venetia, then reconstructed in the late 16th Century to a design by Jacopo Sansovino, with a “new” facade inserted in 1897. Doge Francesco Erizzo (d.1633) is buried in the church. The church faces a very narrow Campiello to the north, the site of a small market on selected days.
A large swath of the southern portion of the island was occupied by bakeries for the Venetian fleet. with the “Street of Bakeries”, Calle dei Forni, and the Fondamente dei Forni along the Rio Dell’ Arsenale memorializing that specialization today. Many of the parish residents were employed in those bakeries, if not in the Arsenale proper. The remaining bakery buildings including those along the Riva Ca’ Di Dio (the eastern extension of the Riva Degli Shiavoni) primarily house Navy offices today.
The peaceful atmosphere of the Campo today belies its location at the center point of the Venetian Republic’s vast shipyards and fleet home. Looking out from the Campo, apparently enhanced in size to create a forecourt for the expanded Arsenale entrance, that industry is hidden behind a well-designed facade.
To the north, across the Rio, the grand entrance to the Arsenale, designed in Renaissance style by Antonio Gambello in around 1460, is stunning.
In addition to the grand land gate, the Porta Magna, modeled on a Roman triumphal arch in Pola (Istria), the entrance is highlighted by four stone lions liberated from the Peloponnesus in Greece by Francesco Morrosini after an epic battle with the Turks in 1687. The tallest lion, ten feet of power displayed at the west end of the array, apparently came from Athens and is more than 2000 years old.
The water gate is of epic scale and design as well, celebrating naval prowess and intimidating visitors into the factory of ship building that it protects. The current gateway, with its two flanking towers that were hingeposts for the old wooden gates that protected the entrance, was last remodeled in 1686.
To the east, across the wide Rio Dell’ Arsenale and beginning by the Bacino di San Marco lies the Fondamente Arsenale and Fondamente Dell’ Madonna, lined by Campo San Biagio, Chiesa San Biagio, the Museo Storico Navale, the mouth of Campiello Tana (from which entry to the Arsenale exhibit halls utilized for the Biennale and other cultural events is gained), past Naval office buildings and leading finally to the site of the historic Oratorio d’Madonna dell’ Arsenale adjacent to the water gate, now obscured by the wall. Those elements are accessed from the Ponte de Arsenale along the Bacino-facing Riva to the south, and across a newer high-arched wooden bridge that springs from the Campo itself. That pedestrian bridge replaced the older pedestrian drawbridge at the same location.
The scene is enlivened by a light but steady passage of citizens, tourists, and well-uniformed Navy officers entering and leaving the Arsenale. Vessel traffic is also fairly light on the Ria — an occasional Navy water taxi, limited public transit, a few private launches, and delivery boats – including UPS boats (Deliverymen in brown uniforms, shorts and all!).
Still, for us, the jewel of the Campo is the Trattoria da Paolo! Campo Arsenale boasts a small handful of establishments, but the more than 25 years old Paolo’s has become our favorite. It is not the closest establishment to the grand Arsenale land and water gates, but close enough in this very small space, and is cupped into the protected, shady corner of the Campo. From its outdoor tables on the Campo, the view is of trees lining the promenade of the Fondamente along the Rio Dell’ Arsenale, colorful umbrellas shading some tables while others allow basking in the full sunshine. Folks from the neighborhood stroll inside to obtain their ombra, and stand against the west wall of the Campo quietly conversing, sipping and taking in the scene. The seasoned staff quietly observes and interacts unobtrusively. An occasional zephyr blows down along the Arsenale wall from the northwest to keep things from overheating.
The grand view of the massive Arsenale land gate, water gate and the fine structures across the Rio, combined with fine food, wine, and service have changed this secluded Campo from the forecourt of wars of empire to a quiet place for practicing and perfecting the art of…
Dolce Far Niente!