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D - 47: Galleys - the Speedy Boats of the Mediterranean

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Over the last two weeks, I must have talked every second day about galleys – at least. Definitely did so yesterday. Time to describe how they were built, who built them and how expensive they were. Galleys were the fastest ships in the Mediterranean – but as today, speedy boats come with their price tag.

In the 16th century when the rivalry between the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League of Christian States peaked, there were four major shipbuilding hubs in the Mediterranean: Venice, Genoa, Istanbul and Barcelona. The Arsenal of Venice survived pretty intact whilst the other centers were refurbished to the point that almost nothing is left. Luckily I had the chance to meet the Commanding Officer of the Arsenal in Venice, Captain Giuseppe Schivardi, last year. There is almost not detail about galley construction he does not know about – and shares freely! Without him, I could not have written this piece.

Venetian 60 oars galley model with the 5-gun ports in front

Whilst galleys were also built in smaller, secondary centres, only the four above mentioned shipyards had the division of labor necessary to be compared to modern manufacturing. The work force was strictly organised along business lines: carpenters built the frames, caulkers planked the ships and made them water-tight, there were oar-makers, mast-makers, rope and pulley makers and craftsmen who took care of the ships' artillery. All of them were seasoned specialists who started their apprentice at the age of twelve. After a tough and thorough exam six years later, they became the masters of their trade. Quality control was institutionalized. A team of experienced inspectors checked every ship under construction every single day. The 2’000 masters and inspectors formed the core of a workforce of 16’000 in the Arsenal of Venice. The total payroll amounted to 140’000 ducats a year or over 10% of Venice’s entire tax collection. Add the 80’000 ducats cost of raw materials and the percentage jumps to 16%.

To keep the design of the galleys secret, no plans were kept. Galleys were built based on the experience of the master builders. Designs were improved by trial and error. Given the decades of practice, the master builders had an eye for the optimal dimension of a galley frame and could build it by heart. It reminds me of my visit to the Dubai shipyard with Mick Wood and Andreas Gottschling in 2006 where dhows are still built without any plans. Of course, the Ottomans and the Christian powers tried to “steal” master builders from the opponents but generous contracts kept them mostly loyal.

Listening to one of the staff of the Dubai shipyard where dhows are still built based on a master builder’s judgment alone

The shipyards’ demand for raw material was enormous. Procuring oak for the frames and the planks, fir trees for the masts, beech wood for the oars or hem for the ropes was a matter of state policy. All the four main shipyards had their own forests and plantations to make sure they never run out of raw material. Have no numbers for the quantities except for oars. It took one fully grown beech tree to make 6 oars. A galley thus needed 10 tall beech trees alone. Oak was specifically important to manage since oak trees grow slowly. It takes about 20 years for an oak tree to reach its full height of 15 – 20 meters. Without long-term planning and foresight there would never be sufficient oak when needed. It also requires detailed inventories of all the raw material planted for future need. Would love to see an inventory control list. Am sure it existed but have never heard of any. Wonder whether the job of plantation accountant still exist!

Modern Oak Tree Farm in Louisiana, USA

Since galleys were expensive to build and the crews difficult to recruit, feed and train, the peace time navies were a fraction of the size during war times. For Genoa and Venice, the peace time strength was about a third. This forced the arsenals to stockpile large amounts of prefabricated components to quickly ramp up the number of ships when needed. Apparently, the Venetian Arsenal stocked 5’000 benches, 300 sails, 15’000 oars, 100 masts, hundreds of guns, a huge quantity of gun powder and countless other items needed. The Gold Standard was to have 100 dry-stored galleys. During war times (1537-1538) the Venetian Arsenal rolled out 50 galleys in just 10 months’ time. The Venetians did it with a sophisticated numbering system which allowed them to quickly assemble these inventories into a galley. Every item was pre-assigned. These records still exist today! It would take a Henry Ford to become more productive.

Building a war galley cost about 55’000 ducats, a lighter patrol galley 15’000. The entire annual budget of the Venetian Arsenal would only be enough for 4 galleys. Sounds little but I guess it is about right when taking into account that the maintenance cost of a ship is tyically 10% of the purchase price. Venice had about 30 war galleys in the 15th century thus having to spend the money for 4 galleys per year to maintain the fleet sounds about right.


But how much money are 55’000 ducats? I looked for several references. None led anywhere. A ducat contains 3.5 grams of pure gold which would make it worth USD 180 at today’s gold prices. Building a war galley would thus cost USD 9.9 million. A lot of money but the amount says nothing about the relative price compared to other goods.

Using my above calculation, a Palazzo on the Grand Canal could be bought for 3’000 ducats (USD 0.5 m – sounds cheap), the Doge Tommaso Mocenigo enumerated the total commercial value of Venice at 10 million ducats (USD 1.8 bn – probably undervalued), the Head of the Arsenal earned 240 ducats a year (USD 43’200 – seems a bit light) or a highly sought after Murano glass maker retired on 70 ducats a year (USD 12’600 – again a bit light).


Tommaso di Campofregoso Ducat from Genoa

The purchasing power of a ducat was probably higher than today’s gold prices indicate. I would say that it may have been up to 10 times higher. Would make the salary of the Admiral of the Venetian Arsenal and of the Murano glass maker more reasonable. Also, paying the equivalent of USD 5 million for a Palazzo on the Grand Canal sounds more realistic – but I would buy it for USD 0.5 m if available! Be it as it may. Would love to hear if anybody had more luck with establishing the true purchasing power value of a ducat.

Whether a war galley cost USD 99 million or USD 9.9 m is less important than the fact that the sum amounted to 4% of Venice’s annual tax intake. That is huge! Building a new aircraft carrier like the Gerald R. Ford costs about USD 15 bn. Add to this the support ships needed for a Carrier Strike Group (destroyers, frigates & submarines) and the price tag will probably double. USD 30 bn over USD 3.33 tr annual tax revenue equates to 1%. One galley was 4%! Galleys were indeed super expensive. No wonder then that both Genoa and Venice were reluctant to commit these assets to battle and did it only when absolutely necessary. Better keep them trading and make money. Who would not agree?

Tomorrow, we use the galleys to sail up the Italian Peninsula to Liguria where we are going to discover and explore the last cuisine for the 2020 blog.

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alex aleksat
alex aleksat
28 jun

I just wonder where did you find those 55 000 ducats for a single galley ??? And which century ???

It is more likely to be 5500 ducats.

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