Venice is famous for its canals, bridges, romance, glass making, and way of life that is centered around the sea which is why it was once a vast ruling Republic whose ships dominated the Mediterranean. At the height of the Republic, the Venetian Republic stretched across northeast Italy, down through Croatia to Istanbul. And although Venetian glory has faded, you can still catch a glimpse of its opulence and vast wealth with a visit to the beautiful Doge’s Palace (or Palazzo Ducale in Italian) in the Piazza San Marco. Don’t forget to scroll down to the bottom for some tips and tricks before your trip to the Doge.
A tour of the palace is actually an essential part of any visit to Venice to understand its glorious history. And to understand the history we must begin with the name of the place.
So what is a Doge anyway?
The Doge is an elected ruler of a Republic and unlike in a monarchy, he cannot pass the title down by birthright. From the 9th Century, the Doge ruled Venice for almost 1,000 years and called this glorious palace their home during that time. Laws were made here, justice was served here, even the official state prison was formally on these grounds. Once the Doge’s finished their daily duties, they returned to the interior of palace where they lived surrounded by luxury in every corridor and ceiling of every room.
The Palace Architecture
The palace itself is a mix of East and West where Gothic architecture meets Classical Roman columns. The exterior is a pretty pink hue, with ornate lattice-patterned brickwork. It is a marriage of styles that no one would think to put together, but has over time become a recognizable symbol of Venice and later immitated all over the world.
As you can see from the pictures below, Doge’s Palace is located in the famous Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square). Today, the beautiful basilica that we all recognize from tourist photos and movies is the city’s official cathedral, but it was originally built as the Doge’s personal sanctuary and to house the bones of the apostle Mark the Evangelist that Venetians stole from Egypt’s ancient city of Alexandria in 828 AD.
Nicknamed the “Chiesa d’Oro,” or church of gold, the Byzantine style basilica is covered in glittering Murano glass mosaics, both inside and out. The floor is a colorful kaleidoscope of marble geometric patterns along with the round exterior shapes of the chapel are reminiscent of mosques found all over the Middle East. It is a breathtaking symbol of Venice’s strong ties with the Middle East, its enormous trading wealth, and its bold spirit.
Many have compared Doge Palace to other famous palatial estates across the world. Versailles in France, for example is a popular comparison. Having visited both, I would say that the opulence of Doge’s Palace in my opinion even out-does Louis XIII masterpiece just outside of Paris. Why? Just look at the ornate details in the pictures below!
With so much disposable cash, many families built magnificent palaces along the Grand Canal in Venice. They also became patrons of the arts, commissioning paintings and sculptures to decorate their new palaces. The Doges were no different, so the palace interior drips with glitter and grandeur ensuring that everyone who visited knew this was center of Venetian power and extravagance.
The high ceilings, ornate Golden Staircase that leads into the rooms full of more golden adornments, all portray the singular theme -richness and wealth. I would even go so far as to say that it smells rich as you are walking up the Golden Staircase, one painting becoming more extravagant than the next as you move forward further into the palace.
One of the most popular reasons for visiting Doge’s Palace– it is a mecca for art lovers. The art in the palace includes: oil paintings, a section on weapons and armory, fine china, carpets, murals and lots of statues and sculptures. The magnificent statutes will actually be the subject of my next post so stay tuned!
As you can see the Doge is packed with amazing works of art, but none that even compare to the grandeur and immense scale of the painting hanging in the Hall of the Great Council –Jacopo Tintoretto’s Paradise.
No room in Doge’s Palace was larger or more important than this one. During council sessions, the hall had to accommodate all 0f the 1,800 noble citizens entitled to vote. All decisions made by the Republic were discussed here so when the hall required redecorating after a fire, a contest was held to appoint an artist to create the art for this significant room.
Measuring an enormous 22 by 9 meters (74 by 30 feet) and taking up an entire wall in the Hall, Tintoretto’s oil painting is the largest in the world; a spectacular sight filling the entire wall behind the Doge’s throne. The painting depicts a massive mob of 500 saintly figures, together ascending to heaven.
At its completion, Paradise was roundly applauded as a truly immense achievement by the 70-year old artist, who was rewarded handsomely of course, and as a perfect display of Venice’s grandeur and power. It was Tintoretto’s crowning glory and his final flourish before his death six years later.
Venice & Persia
Continuing with the theme of the marriage between East meets West, I was thrilled to see lots of artwork displaying the relationship between Venice and the Middle East, particularly the ancient Persian empire. The painting below was my favorite piece. It shows the of Persian ambassadors visiting the Doge’s in Venice and in true Persian style, presenting them with gifts brought from Persian in appreciation for the Venetian hospitality. Many of the gifts depicted in these paintings were well preserved artifacts that have now become other artwork hung in the museum –such as carpets, silver and gold ornaments.
We have all heard the expression if these walls could talk right? So if the walls of the Doge Palace could talk, what secrets they would tell?! So many secrets between the rich and powerful men ruling the Republic that there are passageways and hidden rooms not open for general public but can be accessed through the special Secret Itineraries tour. You must book in advance to visit these secret spots including the council chambers, the famous New Prison, the Torture Chamber and where Giacomo Casanova lived. Follow this link for tickets: https://selectitaly.com/tickets/museums/doges-palace-secret-itineraries-venice/193#fndtn-overview
What? Did you just read correctly… did I say Casanova! I thought you said the palace was the seat of justice, the holy basilica, and for government visits. What does any of that have to do with Venice’s most famous son and womanizer Giacomo Casanova?!?!
Although some stories may say otherwise, Casanova was not a nobleman and he did not work in an official capacity for the Republic, so why was he a resident of Doge’s Palace for a year in 1755?
It’s simple. Casanova was a prisoner in the Doge’s Palace jail.
You might think that the adventurous, 30-year old was convicted for adultery, but actually it was his fascination with illegal witchcraft and magic that landed him behind bars. He was arrested after an anonymous tip, tried and condemned to five years detention in the Doge’s prison. What happened next would surprise everyone. The young ravisher spent just one short year in his wood-paneled cell before bribing his way out and jumping over the roof to escape via gondola and live in exile in Paris.
Casanova himself later turned his bold escape into a best-selling auto-biography, Histoire de ma vie. Today you can literally retrace his footsteps by walking along the very boards of the attic prison cell that he broke through in his legendary escape from Venice.
There are hundreds of reasons to visit Doge Palace in Venice, I only mentioned a few here. Some tips to keep in mind are :