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Palazzo Ducale: Secret Itinerary

Behind gilded scenes

Interior courtyard of the prison

Besides the gilded state rooms created to be seen by visitors, both in the days of the Republic and now, the Doge’s Palace also contains the chambers where the nitty-gritty business of running the state took place. In 1984 this latter section of the palace was restored and opened to the public, but because many of the rooms are tiny, the 85-minute Secret Itinerary tour, or Itinerari Segreti can only take limited numbers who book in advance— but it's one of the most fascinating things to do in all Venice.

The tour begins at the top of the Scala d’Oro, but instead of turning right into the state rooms the guide takes you left into the tiny, wooden, ship-shape offices of the Chancellery on the mezzanine, which could easily fit aboard a fat Venetian galley – designed not only to be snug in the winter, but to make the average Venetian feel at home.

The 18th-century Hall of the Chancellery is an elegant wooden room lined with cupboards for storing treaties, each bearing the arms of a chancellor, though Napoleon intervened before the last six cupboards could be decorated.

Like most civil servants, chancellors were recruited from the cittadini originarii – native-born Venetians, preferably of at least of three generations, and rich enough not to have to engage in manual labour. Three chancellors managed to be elevated to the nobility (after paying the equivalent of €500,000), but as usual good service was expected and not praised, while anything less than the best meant trouble. If a chancellor lost a document he had three days to find it or face the death penalty; one chancellor who secretly consorted with foreigners was slipped a poisoned cup of coffee (the same fate that befell Michele 'the Shark' Sindona, the Vatican-related swindler, while in prison in 1986).

Outside are the narrow stairs down which Casanova and his friend the renegade priest escaped when they broke out of the Leads. The two passed the night in an office, then calmly walked unnoticed out of the Porta della Carta in the morning, when the offices were unlocked. A gondola was waiting for them; Casanova, however, stopped first for a morning coffee at Florian’s café, which according to legend still has a copy of his bill.

Beyond the stair are the rooms of the judicial departments linked to the Council of Ten, especially the torture chamber where the three Signori della notte dei criminali (night judges of the criminals) would ‘put to the question’ their suspects, hanging them by the wrists by the rope still dangling ominously in place. Because the victim’s screams would make the civil servants next door nervous, the torture was done at twilight, and the chamber was so arranged that the light of the dying sun would fall in the victim’s eyes, so that the three inquisitors would be invisible in the darkness. The two cells on either side of the rope were for the next suspects to be questioned, who, hearing the proceedings, might be encouraged to talk without all the messy rigamarole.

For psychology was one of the Republic’s chief weapons even before there was a word for it, and as Venice grew old she relied far more on her bark than her bite, encouraging ‘police state’ rumours of torture and assassination and the relentless Council of Ten to make Venetians toe the line.

For the most part, it worked a treat. The stories were so good that nearly every visitor to Venice still believes them, when in truth few states were as humane and progressive: prisoners had a legal right to a lawyer as early as the 970s; a prisoner had to be brought to trial in a month and no more; house arrest was invented for a sick prisoner in 1572; no one could be arrested without sufficient evidence; search warrants could only be issued by committee, and not by a single man; and along with Tuscany, the Republic abolished torture before anyone else, in the early 1700s.

The tour continues to the ornate Sala dei Tre Capi, the chamber of the three heads of the Council of Ten, who served as guardians of Venetian legality, and had to be present at all state meetings, at all appeals trials, and at every function attended by the doge, to make sure he kept to his coronation oath. As this chamber might be visited by some foreign dignitary or ambassador, it was given a lavish ceiling by Veronese, a fireplace carved by Sansovino, a luminous Pietà by the School of Antonello da Messina, and three paintings by Hieronymus Bosch: the peculiar Santa Liberata, a crucified woman, a Paradise and Inferno and St Jerome, with the usual Boschian rogue’s gallery of monsterettes.

Another curiosity of the room is the secret passageway built into the wall; the palace has quite a network of these, including one for busybodies that passed right behind the ducal bed; the state wouldn’t even let sleeping doges lie in peace.

From here it’s up to the notorious Piombi, or ‘Leads’, so named because the cells are just under the leaded roof. In spite of their evil repute, as prisons go they are downright cosy – as good as some one-star hotel rooms, at least, with wooden walls, dry, and not too hot or cold, or crowded, with never more than two prisoners in a cell. The doors seem to be covered with at least seven different locks, but open with only one key.

Casanova’s cell is pointed out, where he lived comfortably enough, inviting his fellow prisoners in for the odd macaroni and cheese, and the guide offers an elaborate explanation of his escape that began through a hole in the roof. You can read more about it in his memoirs. There are wonderful views of the piazza and Lagoon from the Leads’ porthole windows.

The tour continues past a display of weapons to one of the engineering marvels of Venice: the attic above the grand Sala del Maggior Consiglio, where you can see exactly how the shipwrights from the Arsenale made such a vast heavy ceiling float unsupported over the room below; built in 1577, it is so well made it has yet to need any repairs. Part of the reason why was the care taken to produce the right wood. Venice’s forests in the northern Veneto were planted scientifically to ensure that the trees grew tall, strong and straight for masts or beams like these; anyone who cut one down faced the death penalty.

Next comes the palace attic, which like most attics contains much that is obsolete and nostalgic – old wooden toilets, three swords (one for heads, one used in bullfights, and one that fell into a canal and was fossilized in the mud – ‘Nowadays,’ the guide remarks drily, ‘it would dissolve.’), a collar with spikes inside, two Bocche dei Leoni, one for denunciations against thieves, and the other for those against spies and traitors. The latter saw relatively little use, for most Venetians believed, as Marin Sanudo wrote in the 1500s, that, ‘Anyone who wishes to dissent must be mad.’

After the secret tour, visit the rest of the Palazzo Ducale (included in the same ticket).

Practical Info Practical Info icon

Hours Tours English at 9.55am 10.45am and 11.10am

Adm €28; €15 ages 6-14, students aged 15 to 25; Italian citizens over 65. Essential to book on line in advance and bring the printed voucher along. Admission includes the Palazzo Ducale (without a guide).

+39 041 42730892

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Image by David McSpadden