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A Doge's Life

Gormenghast, with Canals

Grand Procession of the Doge in Venice

'Senator in Senate, Citizen in City' were his titles, though they might have added Prince of Clothes, for his wardrobe of gold and silver damask robes and scarlet silks. It’s not surprising that one of the most lavish rooms in the Doge's quarters of the Palazzo Ducale is the Sala degli Scarlatti, the dressing room, with a gilded ceiling, a chimney by Tullio and Antonio Lombardo, and a relief of the Virgin and Doge Leonardo Loredan by Pietro Lombardo.

Once the doge was dressed, the rest of his procession would fall in line, including all the paraphernalia of Byzantine royalty: a naked sword, six silver trumpets, a damask umbrella, a chair, cushion, candle, and eight standards bearing the Lion of St Mark in four colours, symbolizing peace, war, truce and allegiance.

Yet for all the glamour this was the only man in Venice not permitted to send a private note to his wife, or receive one from her, or from anyone else; the only gifts he could accept were flowers or rose-water. He could not go to a café or theatre; he could not engage in any activity to raise money, but was expected to pay out of his own pocket for his robes, banquets, donations, taxes and gifts to St Mark’s. Nor could he abdicate, unless requested. The office was respected, if not the man.

When a doge died he was privately buried in the family tomb before the state funeral – which used a dummy corpse stuffed with straw and a wax mask, a custom originating with Doge Giovanni Mocenigo’s funeral in the early 16th century, during a plague. The Venetians didn't erect monuments to departed leaders—they put them on trial. An ‘Inquisition of the Defunct Doge’ was held over the dummy, to discover if the doge had kept to his Promissione (the oaths made before his coronation) or if his heirs owed the state any money; and it ascertained if any amendments to the Promissione were needed to further limit the powers of the new doge.

Afterwards, the dead doge’s dummy was taken in a great torch-lit procession around St Mark’s Square, to the front of the basilica, to be hoisted in the air nine times by sailors, to the cry of ‘Misericordia!’ while all the bells in the city tolled, before given a funeral service at Santi Giovanni e Paolo.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Image by PD Art