The gravity-defying Palazzo Ducale is Europe’s most dazzling secular building of the Middle Ages, a synthesis of the Romanesque, Gothic and Islamic, wrapped in a diapered pattern of white Istrian stone and red Verona marble. No building of its period is as open and defenceless to the point of topsyturvydom as the Palazzo Ducale, its massive top-heavy upper floor like a strawberry cake held up by its own frosting – a form that echoes the basic structure of the city itself, of palaces supported by millions of piles.
But this fairy confection was all business, the nerve centre of the Venetian empire: the residence of the doge, seat of the Senate and a score of councils, of the Serenissima’s land and sea governments and and their bureaucracies, courts, and even the state prisons. For Ruskin it was ‘the central building of the world’. The Venetians, more unassumingly, think of it as the valve of a rather large seashell.
The original palace was a typically walled and moated citadel, begun shortly after the city’s consolidation on the Rialto in 810. It only began to assume its present shape in 1309, as the government evolved into its final form with the Serrata del Consiglio. In 1340 the massive hall for the Maggior Consiglio was begun on the seaward side – a task that took until 1419.
This new building made the older sections of the palace, facing the piazzetta, look decrepit, but the Senate had decreed that any doge who even proposed any changes to it faced a thousand-ducat fine. Doge after doge suffered in a silent waiting game until a fire in 1419 caused severe damage. Doge Tommaso Mocenigo couldn’t bear any more, and paid the fine, with which the Senate voted to build a ‘more noble edifice’.
Work began on 27 March 1422, ‘the first act of the period properly called the “Renaissance”,’ groaned Ruskin. ‘It was the knell of the architecture of Venice – and of Venice herself.’
To the Venetians, however, any decline was not immediately apparent: in 1438, Doge Francesco Foscari commissioned the florid Porta della Carta to express his pride in Venice’s land expansion, and the city’s greatest painters were hired to fresco the interior – all destroyed in the fires of 1574 and 1577.
So much damage was done that there were serious moves to tear the remaining bits down and let Palladio start again à la classical High Renaissance. Fortunately, however, you can’t teach an old doge new tricks, and under Antonio da Ponte it was rebuilt exactly as it was – a rather extraordinary decision for the time. Who else in the 1570s would reconstruct a Gothic building?
The theme behind the Palazzo Ducale’s exterior decoration is moral instruction and justice (and, naturally, the glory of Venice). Towards St Mark's Basilica, the eye-catching Porta della Carta (Paper Door) is a florid Gothic symphony in stone designed by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon (1443); its name may derive from the clerks whose desks once stood here. Originally brightly painted and gilded, it has been thoroughly scoured, so that it’s hard to tell that the figures of Doge Francesco Foscari and the lion are 19th-century replacements.
Beautiful sculptural groups adorn the corners, most notably the Judgement of Solomon (c. 1410, by Jacopo della Quercia of Siena, one of the greatest early Renaissance sculptors) on the corner nearest the Porta della Carta, with a statue of the Archangel Gabriel overhead.
On the Piazzetta San Marco corner are copies of the original Adam and Eve by Antonio Rizzo; Eve is tempted by the serpent, while the Archangel Michael stands overhead with his sword to guard humanity from temptation.
On the Ponte della Paglia corner is a group portraying The Drunkenness of Noah, an allegory on the frailty of humanity, with the Archangel Raphael overhead, helping to guide the tiny Tobias down the straight and narrow.
Less benign are the two red pillars in the loggia (on the piazzetta façade), according to legend dyed by the blood of Venice’s enemies, whose tortured corpses were strung out between them; one of the palace’s master builders, Filippo Calendario , was hung and quartered here for his role in the Marin Falier conspiracy. On Maundy Thursday the doge would stand between the columns to preside over a tongue-in-cheek ceremony celebrating Venice’s victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia and his 12 prelates – marked by the baiting and decapitation of a bull and 12 pigs.
The rising water level over the centuries has forced the pavement to be raised the equivalent of two steps, making the 36 columns of the ground floor colonnade seem low and squat. But these are crowned with some excellent medieval sculpture, depicting a few sacred and many profane subjects – animals, guildsmen, Turks and Venetians, each telling a story for the benefit of the patricians strolling in the shade. One of the most beautiful is the seventh column from the basin (facing the piazzetta), carved with a Romeo and Juliet scene of courtship, marriage, the first night, the birth of the first child, and then, after all that happiness, the child’s death.
The ticket office on the Riva degli Schiavoni leads straight into the delightful arcaded Cortile or Courtyard, designed by Antonio Rizzo after the fire of 1483, and containing two of Venice’s finest well-heads.
The same sculptor was also responsible for the grand stairway, or Scala dei Giganti, named after the gargantuan statues of Neptune and Mars by Sansovino (1566); among the details, see if you can find the basket of medlars, meant to symbolize cultivated but still unripe young patricians.
At the top of this stair, a newly-elected doge would be crowned with a special, gem-studded Phrygian cap called the zogia, the ‘jewel of independence’, which he could only don again at Easter Mass in San Zaccaria. On the same spot, on the stairway preceded this, Doge Marin Faliero was beheaded in 1355.
The triumphal Arco Foscari, which stands at the end of the entrance passage, was built by the Bartolomeo and Giovanni Bon for Doge Foscari and finished by Rizzo. It is decorated with bronze copies of his statues of Adam and Eve (originals now inside; the wonderfully self-assured Eve so captivated the Duke of Mantua in the 16th century that he offered Venice the statue’s weight in gold in exchange for it, a deal that the Venetians refused).
Most tours of the palace start at the Museo dell’Opera; over the years many of the original bits of sculpture have had to be replaced, but here you can see the originals, mostly pieces dating from the 15th and 16th century, including stone capitals, columns, chunks of stonework from the upper loggia, and models of the palace.
From here, return to the courtyard and begin the tour proper by ascending the Scala dei Censori to the first floor, or primo piano nobile, once the private apartments of the doge and now often used for special exhibitions (separate admission). Each Doge would bring in his own furniture, and today in their stripped-down unfurnished state, they offer few clues as to how the doge lived in this gilded cage of pomp and ritual, leading public and private councils and rites as grand as the ‘Marriage to the Sea’ and as absurd as the one involving 17 women from Poveglia, who on Easter Tuesday had the right to give him a big kiss before sitting down to a ducal dinner.
Turn right, and Sansovino’s Scala d’Oro (1580s, with gilded stuccoes by Vittoria) leads you up to the secondo piano nobile, from where the Venetian state was governed. After the fire that destroyed its great frescoes, Veronese and Tintoretto were employed to decorate the newly remodelled chambers with mythological themes and scores of allegories and apotheoses of Venice – a smug, fleshy blonde in the eyes of these two. These paintings, most of them beaverishly over-restored into a flat, soulless paean of dead glory, are nevertheless the palazzo’s chief interest.
The first room, the Sala delle Quattro Porte (where ambassadors waited to be summoned before the doge) is typical, not even redeemed by the lavish ceiling stuccoes by Palladio and frescoes by Tintoretto.
Some of the best works, however, are in the next waiting room, the Anticollegio. On the walls are four mythological subjects by Tintoretto, designed to plant ideas of concord and harmony in the viewer: his powerful Bacchus and Ariadne Crowned by Venus and Vulcan’s Forge, and less-remarkable Minerva Dismissing Mars and Mercury and the Graces. Other paintings here are Veronese’s Rape of Europa, one of his finest mythological works, and Jacopo Bassano’s Jacob Rejoins his Family.
After digesting these paintings, visiting ambassadors would finally be admitted into the Sala del Collegio, or seat of Venice’s inner council of 25 members, presided over by the doge. As if all the previous glitter hadn’t made its point, this room is decorated with Veronese’s sublimely confident and colourful ceiling, with its centrepiece of Venice Triumphant, and behind the throne, his equally sanguine Doge Sebastian Venier Thanking Christ for Victory at Lepanto.
Less attention was given to the decoration of the Sala del Senato, since the only ambassadors admitted here were Venetians serving abroad. But because of their reports many important decisions were made in this room, by the doge and the Senate, a nucleus chosen from the Maggior Consiglio that over the years varied from 60 to 300 members. The stale paintings are mainly by Tintoretto’s school, with only a touch or two by the master.
Back through the Sala delle Quattro Porte, past Giambattista Tiepolo’s Neptune Paying Homage to Venice (on the easel), the next stop is the Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci, headquarters of the dread, secret Council of Ten. The main panel of the ceiling, by Veronese, was pinched by the French and still hangs in the Louvre, but they left behind Veronese’s oval Old Man in Eastern Costume with a Young Woman, now the star work of the room.
Under this the Council of Ten (a misnomer, as the Ten were always complemented by the doge and six councillors to make 17) deliberated and pored over the accusations deposited in the Bocche dei Leoni – there’s one next door in the Ten’s waiting room, the Sala della Bussola.
And woe indeed to anyone whose alibi refused to satisfy the Ten; a door in the Sala della Bussola passes through the office of the Three Heads of the Ten, in charge of investigating cases of treason – and from there bang, into the torture chamber.
From here steps descend to the old Armoury (Sale d’Armi), housing a fine collection of medieval and Renaissance armour, most of it showpieces that were rarely dented by halberd or sullied by guts, like the suit presented by Venice to Henry IV of France in 1603. A small stair takes you down to the small Sala del Guariento and the remains of Guariento’s enormous fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin or Paradise (1365–7), damaged in the 1577 fire and discovered under Tintoretto’s Paradiso in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. Here, too, are Rizzo’s original Adam and Eve.
To the right is the enormous and magnificent Sala del Maggior Consiglio, originally built in 1340 and capable of holding all 2,500 patricians of the lower house of the Senate, or Great Council. Before the fire of 1577, it was beautifully decorated by Gentile da Fabriano, Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio and Titian, but at least one of the replacement paintings – nothing less than the biggest oil painting in the world (23ft by 72ft) – will give you pause: Tintoretto’s awesome Paradiso, which he painted free of charge, beginning the task at the age of 72.
This replaced Guariento’s fresco and follows the same subject, Canto XXX of Dante’s Paradiso, listing the hierarchy of angels, saints, and Old Testament figures, and others of the heavenly vortex, 500 figures circling Christ crowning the Virgin, the Queen of Heaven. William Blake would have appreciated it, and probably also the story of how some nosy patricians came to watch Tintoretto painting it, and commented, ‘But other painters take more time and draw the figures more carefully.’ To which the short-tempered artist snapped, ‘Because they don’t have to put up with fools watching them!’
On the ceiling is the Paradiso’s secular counterpart: Veronese’s magnificent, vertiginous Apotheosis of Venice, its pride and confidence, even in allegory, probably very irritating to visitors, and embarrassing to behold in May 1797, when Napoleon’s troops were at the gate and the Council in wimpish terror voted to accept all Napoleon’s demands, obliterating Venice’s thousand years of independence and its own existence.
The frieze on the upper wall, by Domenico Tintoretto and assistants, portrays the first 76 doges and one space with only a black veil; this space would have held the head of Marin Falier (1355) had he not been deprived of it for treason in a conspiracy to take sole power (‘Hic est locus Marini Falethri decapitati pro criminibus’ reads the dire inscription).
The portraits of the last 44 doges, each painted by a contemporary painter, continue around the Sala dello Scrutinio, where the votes for office were counted. Elections for doge were Byzantine and elaborate – and frequent; the Maggior Consiglio preferred to choose doges who were old and wouldn’t last long enough to gain a following. Even the most straightforward election took only five days of lots drawn to form a committee to elect a committee to elect a committee to elect a committee to elect a doge; the longest election, Giovanni Bembo’s in 1615, took 24 days. Several of the paintings here are by Tieopolo's teacher, Gregorio Lazzarini.
From the Sala dello Scrutinio, you have to go back through the Sala del Maggior Consiglio to get to the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), linking the palace to the 17th-century Palazzo delle Prigioni, mostly used for petty offenders.
The real rotters were dumped into uncomfortable Pozzi, or ‘Wells’ in the lower part of the Palazzo Ducale, while more illustrious offenders like Casanova were lodged in the Piombi or ‘Leads’ just under the roof (which you can visit on the Secret Itinerary).
The horrible rumours of these cells, rumours encouraged by the State, made the French conquerors in 1797 think they would find hundreds upon hundreds of innocent victims of the Ten rotting away inside them. With a flourish they burst in, only to have a bad case of déjà vu. The Bastille had had only three prisoners waiting to be liberated; Venice managed to have four, but one was so fond of his cell he incessantly begged the French to let him go back. Further embarrassment was averted when he died from an overdose of chocolate and rich cakes.
The tour of the prison area has been extended and you can now descend into the very bowels of the building, following a labyrinth of corridors past endless gloomy cells. At the end is a room containing various relics of prisoners’ lives backed up by vivid descriptions of living conditions (which included a ‘taverna da vin’ open to prisoners and public alike – just imagine that in Wormwood Scrubs).
For the behind the scenes secret itinerary, click here.
Avoid the queues by booking tickets online before arriving. Admission to the Palace is included in the Piazza San Marco Museums ticket.
Hours Apr-Oct daily 8.30-7, Nov-Mar daily 8.30-4.30
+39 041 271 5911
Images by: Harshlight, Creative Commons License, ile_civetta, Keiran, Dennis Jarvis, Creative Commons License