The Armstrong Mitchell hydraulic crane at the Arsenale – a Venice in Peril Project

The only one of its kind left in the world, the Armstrong Mitchell hydraulic crane is a spectacular sculptural piece of engineering which soars above the roofline of the most historic dockyard in the world. The Arsenale is a fascinating part of Venetian history.  Dating from the 12th century, its unique architecture tells a remarkable story of this once secret world within the city.  It was enlarged between the 14th and 16th centuries and again after Napoleon’s defeat of the Venetian Republic.
The Armstrong Mitchell hydraulic crane at the Arsenale - a Venice in Peril Project

 Armstrong Mitchell Crane taken in 2010 by Micheal Harding for Patek Philippe @VeniceinPeril

The 19th Century

The second half of the 19th century was a pivotal time in the history of navigation, with radical transformation in the way vessels were constructed, with the adoption of metal hulls and steam engines.  The port was constantly acquiring state of the art machinery, the most important of which was the great hydraulic crane produced by the British manufacturer Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. (installed between 1883 and 1885).

An iconic structure…
 This crane was a breakthrough in engineering, permitting as it did large quantities of water to be forced through pipes at a constant pressure, thus creating more power to lift heavier weights. The result was a considerable increase in load capacity (up to 160 tons). In 1883 the Italian Navy commissioned Armstrong, Mitchell & Co. to install the crane. By 1885 it was fully functioning and in constant use for some 30 years until the First World War, being finally decommissioned in the mid-1950s.


International Renown

Between 1876 and 1905, nine other Armstrong cranes were installed in naval dockyards around the world, from Liverpool to Bombay to Japan. Only the Venice crane now survives, albeit with a serious structural problem – the counterweight chamber is cracking, and if that were to give way, the crane would collapse.

 It is so important for British organisations such as Venice in Peril Fund to help restore this landmark in engineering history to its former glory. Britain was the first country to industrialize, and as such has a large number of historic industrial sites and therefore experience of caring for them and engaging the interest of the general public.

The conservation of the crane will be no easy feat. Structural surveys and scientific analyses have sharply demonstrated the huge amount of work to be done, but already a team of Italian engineers and British conservationists have stepped up to the challenge. As Lord Foster has said, it would be an “unforgivable act of negligence” to leave the crane to disintegrate. Describing it as an “iconic structure”, he says it “is not only aesthetically inseparable form its historic context, but it is a priceless part of the industrial heritage of Venice”
The Armstrong Mitchell hydraulic crane at the Arsenale - a Venice in Peril Project

 Armstrong Mitchell Crane taken in 2010 by Micheal Harding for Patek Philippe @VeniceinPeril

This is the Fund’s first Industrial Heritage Project and reflects increasing awareness and enthusiasm for this aspect of Venice’s history.

• The Venice in Peril Fund has been involved since 2003 and has spent €132,000 making the crane safe and maintaining its safety. More recently, in 2013, €15,000 was spent reinforcing the straps that hold the ballast container together and to update the report on its condition.
• Phase I of the full project is costed at €390,000 and a further approximately €1.6million will be needed to complete the project.

in 2014 the Headley Trust made a grant of £20,000 to explore the options for funding the project which the Venice in Peril Fund is currently engaged in.

If you are a passionate about Britain’s engineering heritage as well as Venetian Maritime history and would like to know more, please get in touch – we would like to hear from you.

Visiting the Armstrong Mitchell Crane

Visitors can see the crane on the dockside when they visit the Biennale art exhibitions in the Arsenale or join one of the increasing number of tours organised as part of Arsenale Open Days or by the Italian Navy or local associations.

Please click here to view images of the Armstrong Mitchell Crane taken in 2010 by Micheal Harding for Patek Philippe.

Read more about Venice in Peril Fund and how to get involved and/or donate