The word arsenale derives from the Arabic dar sina'a, meaning 'house of industry': the industry, and efficiency, of Venice's Arsenale was legendary: the arsenalotti could assemble a galley in just a few hours. Shipbuilding activities began here in the 12th century; at the height of the city's power, 16,000 men were employed. Production expanded until the 16th century, when Venice entered its slow but inexorable economic decline.
The imposing land gateway by Antonio Gambello (1460) in campo dell'Arsenale is the first example of Renaissance classical architecture to appear in Venice, although the capitals of the columns are 11th-century Veneto-Byzantine. The winged lion gazing down from above holds a book without the traditional words Pax tibi Marce (Peace to you, Mark) - unsuitable in this military context. Outside the gate, four lions keep guard. Those immediately flanking the terrace were looted from Athens in 1687; the larger one stood at the entrance to the port of Piraeus and bears runic inscriptions on its side, hacked there in the 11th century by Norse mercenary soldiers in Byzantine service. The third lion, whose head is clearly less ancient than its body, came from Delos and was placed here to commemorate the recapture of Corfu in 1716.
Shipbuilding activity ceased in 1917, but the Arsenale still remains navy property. Exhibitions and performances are now held in the cavernous spaces within its walls: the Artiglierie and the grandiose Gaggiandre, dockyards designed by Sansovino. In campo della Tana, on the other side of the rio dell'Arsenale, is the entrance to the Corderia (rope factory), an extraordinary building 316m (1,038 ft) long. This vast space is used to house the overflow from the Biennale and for other temporary shows.