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Building or group of buildings for the manufacture and storage of warships, weapons or ammunition. The term (from the Arabic dar accina‛ah: ‘workshop’) was first used at the Arsenale in Venice, where both the military and the commercial ships of the Venetian Republic were built. According to tradition, the Arsenale at Venice was founded in 1104, although recent research has suggested a later date at the beginning of the 13th century. As Venetian maritime power increased, the Arsenale grew in size, particularly during the 15th and 16th centuries, eventually occupying 46 ha, surrounded by walls and canals (see Venice, fig.). The Arsenale’s importance was emphasized by its monumental architecture, including one of the city’s first Renaissance buildings, the Great Gateway (1460), attributed to Antonio Gambello, which is in the form of a triumphal arch. Despite the scale of the Arsenale at Venice, Venetian naval power was successfully challenged by the Ottoman Empire, whose own arsenal in Istanbul became the greatest in the world during the 16th and 17th centuries.

While the arsenals at Venice and Istanbul were the most magnificent of their time, important examples were also built in other parts of Europe. The Duc de Sully supervised the completion of Philibert de L’Orme’s scheme for an arsenal in Paris, while the site of the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich in London was used for military stores as early as the 16th century. It was not until 1695, however, that the Royal Laboratory for making gunpowder was moved to Woolwich from Greenwich, followed in 1717 by a foundry for casting guns, with red brick buildings attributed to John Vanbrugh. Other contemporary arsenals included the Baroque Zeughaus (now the Deutsches Historisches Museum) in Berlin, begun in 1695 by Johann Arnold Nering and completed (1706) by Martin Grünberg, Andreas Schlüter and Jean de Bodt. A magnificent structure, it was decorated with numerous works of art, including Schlüter’s Heads of Dying Warriors on the keystones of the windows (see Schlüter, andreas, fig.).

During the 18th and 19th centuries new arsenals were created throughout Europe and North America. They included establishments in Moscow (completed 1736) and St Petersburg, where the arsenal moved to new premises in the 1840s. In New York an armoury (1843) by Martin E. Thompson was built on East 64th Street, replacing an earlier one nearer the centre of town. The weapons that it contained were intended to meet the threat of civil disorder, although it was claimed that the arsenal was too far from central New York to provide prompt action in the event of a riot. Other existing arsenals also grew dramatically in size during this period. The development of the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich, for example, prompted by the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars, led to the construction of a large number of mostly utilitarian buildings, with limited classical decoration. By the beginning of the 19th century the Royal Arsenal occupied 139 acres, and by 1855 this had almost doubled.

In the 20th century the historical arsenals gradually declined: for example, production at the Woolwich Arsenal fell after reaching a peak during World War I and stopped completely in 1967. Armament factories gradually replaced the old arsenals, but as it became less acceptable (and too expensive) for modern states to enhance their prestige through impressive buildings associated with arms manufacture, these generally lacked the monumental appearance and decoration of their predecessors. One of the last attempts to create an impressive arsenal was made in Nazi Germany, as part of Albert Speer’s plans for the reconstruction of Berlin. Hans Hermann Klaje’s design for a new armoury represents a classical arcaded building of intimidating scale. As a result of the Nazi defeat in World War II, Klaje’s proposal fortunately never got beyond the stage of a model. It is, nonetheless, a reminder of a culture of ostentatious militarism that was to be challenged, if not completely defeated, by succeeding generations.


  • B. Barbiche: Sully (Paris, 1978)
  • B. Cherry and N. Pevsner: London, 2: South, Bldgs England (Harmondsworth, 1983), pp. 286–9
  • E. Concina: L’Arsenale della Repubblica di Venezia (Milan, 1984)
  • G. Nehring: Johann Arnold Nering: Ein preussischer Baumeister (Essen, 1985)
  • Progetto Arsenale: Studi e ricerche per l’Arsenale di Venezia (exh. cat., ed. P. Gennaro and G. Testi; Venice, Scu. Grande S Giovanni Evangelista, 1985)
  • R. M. Fogelson: America’s Armories: Architecture, Society and Public Order (Cambridge, MA, and London, 1989)
  • P. Adam: The Arts of the Third Reich (London, 1992), p. 270 [illus. of Klaje’s proposal for Berlin]