One of the benefits of being a writer is the interesting stuff you uncover during research (for money) that can send you on a tour you didn’t intend to take. While fact checking a document I had written about Venice’s famed Arsenale, the “premier producer of weaponry of the age,” I came across a very interesting paper by Robert C Davis called Venetian shipbuilders and the fountain of wine.
I knew Davis had a good head on his shoulders when he wrote, “…in seeking the roots of the modern in the ways that Venetians ran their manufactory, historians have tended to neglect or marginalize certain facets of the Arsenal’s operation that did not, inconveniently, presage today’s practices. Yet it is here on the margins, where Venetian ways of doing things might seem most contrary to economic common sense, that we can best glimpse elements of the social contract that underlay Venice’s workplace culture, indications of just how profoundly different in its guiding premises this pre-industrial community was from our own.”
Yes, we all tend to jettison the facts we don’t like and slog on using naught but faith in concepts that appear to be logical (or can be twisted to appear so). Just having someone mention the lost (in the US at least) concept of the social contract is quite startling in this day and age.
But what I really wanted to write about is what the Venetians did that was “most contrary to economic common sense” and the focus of Davis’ article.
The workers of the Arsenale, their bosses, the hangers on and even tourists who visited the warship factory in the 15th century (when the Arsenale employed 16,000 workers) drank absolutely prodigious amounts of wine which was provided by the government. Free.
Furthermore, when the economics got to the point of drastic cost cutting, wine was pretty much the last to go. Some years the Arsenale went through 600,000 liters of wine per year. That’s a lot. And it wasn’t easy to find a supplier that could supply that quantity, especially in the off years. At its peak, wine consumption for each worker seems to have peaked at 5 liters a day.
I encourage you to read the article. It’s a fascinating study of the use of wine in early industry. And building a wine fountain to eliminate the spoilage of wine due to the workers dipping their hands into the wine vats to drink was pure brilliance.
Unfortunately, the whole article has been removed from public access, but a short extract can be read before you have to pay:
Venetian shipbuilders and the fountain of wine
For more on the Maritime exploits of Venice, don’t miss the Naval History Museum