Venice is a city of beautiful facades-palaces, churches, carnival mads that can cover darker interiors of intrigue and decay. The Doge’s Palace, with its frilly pink exterior, hides the fact that the Serene Republic” (as Venice called itself) was far from serene its heyday.
The Doge’s Palace housed the fascinating government of this rich and powerful empire. It also served as the home for the Venetian ruler wn as the doge (pronounced “dohzh”), or duke. For four centuries about 1180-1850), this was the most powerful half-acre in Europe. The dogs wanted their palace to reflect the wealth and secular values the Republic, impressing visitors and serving as a reminder that the were Number One in Europe.
Cost: €20 combo-ticket includes the Correr Museum, also covered by Museum Pass. Hours: Daily 8:30-19:00, Nov-March until 17:30, last entry one hour before closing.
DOGE’S PALACE TOUR
Avoiding Lines: Avoid the long peak-season line at the Doge’s Palace by buying your combo-ticket (or Museum Pass) at the uncrowded Correr Museum. This lets you enter the Doge’s Palace at the “pre- paid tickets” entrance. You can also get prepaid tickets 48 hours in advance online. Crowds tend to diminish after 15:00. Getting There: The palace is next to St. Mark’s Basilica, on the lagoon
waterfront, and just off St. Mark’s Square. Vaporetto stops: San
Marco or San Zaccaria.
Information: Tel. 041-271-5911, http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it.
Tours: The audioguide (€5, must leave ID) is dry but informative. The
fine 1.25-hour Secret Itineraries guided tour lets you skip the line and covers rooms otherwise not open to the public (€20, wise to reserve ahead: from the US dial 011-39-041-4273-0892, within Italy call 848-082-000, book online, or try just showing up at the info desk). Avoid the Doge’s Hidden Treasures Tour-it reveals little that would be considered a “treasure.”
Length of This Tour: Allow 1.5 hours. Services: WCs are in the courtyard and halfway up the stairs to bal-
cony level. Bags bigger than a large purse must be checked (free). Cuisine Art: A pricey sandwich-and-salad café is off the palace
Starring: Big rooms bare of furnishings but crammed with history, Tintoretto masterpieces, and the doges.
DOGE’S PALACE TOUR
The palace was originally built in the 800s, but most of what we see came after 1300, as it was expanded to meet the needs of the em- pire. Each doge wanted to leave his mark on history with a new wing.
If you compare this lacy, top-heavy structure with the massive fortress palaces of Florence, you realize the wisdom of building a city in the middle of the sea-you have no natural enemies except gravity. This unfortified palace in a city with no city wall was the doge’s way of saying, “I am an elected and loved ruler. I do not fear my own people.”
► Enter the Doge’s Palace from along the waterfront. After you pass through the turnstile, ignore the signs and cross to the far side of the courtyard. Stand at the foot of the grand staircase topped by two statues.
The Courtyard and the Stairway of Giants (Scala dei Giganti)
Imagine yourself as a foreign dignitary on business to meet the doge. In the courtyard, you look up a grand staircase topped with two nearly nude statues of, I think, Moses and Paul Newman (more likely, Neptune and Mars, representing Venice’s prowess at sea and at war). The doge and his aides would be waiting for you at the top, between
the two statues and beneath the winged lion. No matter who you were-king, pope, or emperor-you’d have to hoof it up. The powerful doge would descend the stairs for no one. Many doges were crowned here, between the two statues. The doge was something like an elected king-which makes sense only in the dictatorial republic that was Venice. Technically, he was just a noble selected by other nobles to carry out their laws and decisions.
Many doges tried to extend their powers and rule more as divine-right kings. Many others just put on their funny hats and accepted their prole as figurehead and ceremonial ribbon cutter. The palace is attached to the church, symbolically welding church and state. Both buildings have ugly brick behind a painted-lady veneer of marble. In this tour, we’ll see the similarly harsh inner work- ings of an outwardly serene, polished republic.
Cross back to near the entrance and follow the signs up the tourists’ staircase to the first-floor balcony (loggia). Midway along the balcony, you’ll find a face in the wall, the…
Mouth of Truth
This fierce-looking androgyne opens his/her mouth, ready to swallow a piece of paper, hungry for gossip. Letterboxes like this (some with lions’ heads) were scattered throughout the palace. Originally, anyone who had a complaint or suspicion about anyone else could accuse him anonymously (denontie secrete) by simply dropping a slip of paper in the mouth. This set the blades of justice turning inside the palace.
A few steps toward Paul Newman is the entrance to the…
Golden Staircase (Scala d’Oro)
The palace was architectural propaganda, designed to impress visi tors. This 24-karat gilded-ceiling staircase was something for them to write home about. As you ascend the stairs, look back at the floor below and marvel at its 3-D pattern.
Start up the first few steps of the Golden Staircase. Midway up, at the first landing, turn right, which takes you up into the…
Doge’s Apartments (Appartamento del Doge) The dozen or so rooms on the first floor are where the doge actually lived. The blue-and-gold-hued Sala dei Scarlatti (Room 5) is typical of
the palace’s interior decoration: gold-coffered ceiling, big stone fire- place, silky walls with paintings, and a speckled floor. There’s very little original furniture, as doges were expected to bring their own. Despite his high office, the doge had to obey several rules that bound him to the city. He couldn’t leave the palace unescorted, he couldn’t open official mail in private, and he and his family had to leave their own home and live in the Doge’s Palace.
The large Room 6, the Sala dello Scudo (Shield Hall), is full of maps and globes. The main map illustrates the reach of Venice’s mari- time realm, which stretched across most of the eastern Mediterranean. With the maps in this room you can trace the eye-opening trip across Asia-from Italy to Greece to Palestine, Arabia, and “Irac”-of local boy Marco Polo (c. 1254-1325). Finally, he arrived at the other side of the world. This last map (at the far end of the room) is shown “upside- down,” with south on top, giving a glimpse of the Venetian worldview circa 1550. It depicts China, Taiwan (Formosa), and Japan (Giapan), while America is a nearby island with California and lots of Terre Incognite.
In Room 7, the Sala Grimani, are several paintings of the lion of St. Mark, including the famous one by Vittore Carpaccio of a smiling lion (on the long wall). The lion holds open a book with these words, “Pax Tibi Marce…” (“Peace to you, Mark”), which, according to legend, were spoken by an angel welcoming St. Mark to Venice. In the back- ground is the Doge’s Palace and the Campanile.
▸ Finish browsing the dozen or so private rooms of the Doge’s Apart- ments, and continue up the Golden Staircase to the third floor, which was the “public” part of the palace. The room right at the top of the stairs is the…
Square Room (Atrio Quadrato)
The ceiling painting, Justice Presenting the Sword and Scales to Doge Girolamo Priuli, is by Tintoretto. (Stand at the top of the paint- ing for the full 3-D effect.) As you’ll soon see, this palace is wallpa- pered with Titians, Tintorettos, and Veroneses. Many have the same theme you see here: a doge, in his ermine cape, gold-brocaded robe, and funny one-horned hat with earflaps, kneeling in the presence of saints, gods, or mythological figures.
Room of the Four Doors (Sala delle Quattro Porte)
This was the central clearinghouse for all the goings-on in the palace. Visitors presented themselves here and were directed to their destina- tion-the courts, councils, or the doge himself. The room was designed by Andrea Palladio, the architect who did the impressive Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, across the Grand Canal from St. Mark’s Square. On the intricate stucco ceiling, notice the feet of the women dangling down below the edge (above the windows), extending the illusion.
On the wall to the left of the door you entered from is a painting by Titian, showing a doge kneeling with great piety before a woman embodying Faith holding the Cross of Jesus. Notice old Venice in the misty distance under the cross. This is one of many paintings you’ll see of doges in uncharacteristically humble poses-paid for, of course, by the doges themselves.
G. B. Tiepolo’s well-known Venice Receiving Neptune is now displayed on an easel, but it was originally hung on the wall above the windows where they’ve put a copy. The painting shows Venice as a woman-Venice is always a woman to artists-reclining in luxury,
dressed in the ermine cape and pearl necklace of a doge’s wife (doga- ressa). Crude Neptune, enthralled by the First Lady’s beauty, arrives bearing a seashell bulging with gold ducats. A bored Venice points and says. “Put it over there with the other stuff.” Enter the small room with the big fireplace and several paintings.
Ante-Collegio Hall (Sala dell’Anticollegio)
It took a big title or bribe to get in to see the doge. Once accepted for a visit, you would wait here before you entered, combing your hair, ad- justing your robe, popping a breath mint, and preparing the gifts you’d brought. While you cooled your heels and warmed your hands at the elaborate fireplace, you might look at some of the paintings-among the finest in the palace, worthy of any museum in the world.
The Rape of Europa (on the wall opposite the fireplace), by Paolo Veronese, most likely shocked many small-town visitors with its ris- qué subject matter. Here Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, appears in the form of a bull with a foot fetish, seducing a beautiful earthling while cupids spin playfully overhead.
Tintoretto’s Bacchus and Ariadne (to the right of the fireplace) is another colorful display of Venice’s sensual tastes. The God of Wine seeks a threesome, offering a ring to the mortal Ariadne, who’s being crowned with stars by Venus, who turns slowly in zero gravity. The ring is the center of a spinning wheel of flesh, with the three arms like spokes.
Collegio Hall (Sala del Collegio)
Flanked by his cabinet of six advisers-one for each Venetian neigh- borhood-the doge would sit on the wood-paneled platform at the far end to receive ambassadors, who laid their gifts at his feet and pleaded their countries’ cases. All official ceremonies, such as the ratification of treaties, were held here.
At other times, it was the “Oval Office” where the doge and his cabinet (the executive branch) met privately to discuss proposals to give to the legislature, pull files from the cabinets (along the right wall), or rehearse a meeting with the pope. The wooden benches around the sides (where they sat) are original. The clock on the wall is a backward-running 24-hour clock with Roman numerals and a sword for hands.
The ceiling is 24-karat gold, framing paintings by Veronese. These are not frescoes (painting on wet plaster), like those in the Sistine Chapel, but actual canvases painted in Veronese’s studio and then placed on the ceiling. Within years, Venice’s humidity would have melted frescoes like mascara.
The T-shaped painting of the woman with the spider web (on the ceiling, opposite the big window) represents the Venetian sym- bol of Discussion. You can imagine the webs of truth and lies woven in this room by the doge’s scheming advisers. In Mars and Neptune with Campanile and Lion (the ceiling painting near the entrance), Veronese presents four symbols of the Republic’s strength-military, sea trade, city, and government (plus a cherub about to be circumcised by the Campanile). Enter the large Senate Hall.
Senate Hall (Sala del Senato)
While the doge presided from the stage, senators mounted the podium (middle of the wall with windows) to address their 120 colleagues. The legislators, chaired by the doge, debated and passed laws in this room.
Venice prided itself on its self-rule (independent of popes, kings, and tyrants), with most power placed in the hands of these annually elected men. Which branch of government really ruled? All of them. It was an elaborate system of checks and balances to make sure no one rocked the gondola, no one got too powerful, and the ship of state sailed smoothly ahead.
Tintoretto’s large Triumph of Venice on the ceiling (central painting, best viewed from the top) shows the city in all its glory. Lady Venice is up in heaven with the Greek gods, while barbaric esser
nations swirl up to give her gifts and tribute. Do you get the feeling the Venetian aristocracy was proud of its city? On the wall are two large clocks, one of which has the signs of the zodiac and phases of the moon. And there’s one final oddity in this room, in case you hadn’t noticed it yet. In one of wall painting
(above the entry door), there’s actually a doge…not kneeling. Exiting the Senate Hall, pass again through the Room of the Four Doors, then around the corner into a hall with a semicircular platform at the far end.
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Hall of the Council of Ten (Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci)
By the 1400s, Venice had a worldwide reputation for swift, harsh, and secret justice. The dreaded Council of Ten-10 judges, plus the doge and his six advisers-met here to dole out punishment to traitors, murderers and “morals” violators. Note the 17 wood panels where they presided.
This secret council eventually had their own security force of guards, spies, informers, and assassins. It seemed no one was safe from the spying eye of the “Terrible Ten.” You could be accused anon ymously (by a letter dropped into a Mouth of Truth), swept off the streets, tried, judged, and thrown into the dark dungeons in the palace for the rest of your life without so much as a Miranda warning.
It was in this room that the Council decided who lived or died, and who was decapitated, tortured, or merely thrown in jail. The small, hard-to-find door leading off the platform (the fifth panel to the right of center) leads through secret passages to the prisons and torture chambers.
The large, central, oval ceiling painting by Veronese (a copy of the original stolen by Napoleon and still in the Louvre) shows Jupiter Descending from Heaven to Strike Down the Vices, redundantly informing the accused that justice in Venice was swift and harsh Though the dreaded Council of Ten was eventually disbanded, today their descendants enforce the dress code at St. Mark’s Basilica.
▸ Pass through the next room, turn right, and head up the stairs to the Armory Museum.
Armory Museum (L’Armeria)
The aesthetic of killing is beyond me, but I must admit I’ve never seen a better collection of halberds, falchions, ranseurs, targes, morions,
and brigandines in my life. The weapons in these three rooms make you realize the important role the military played in keeping the East- West trade lines open.
Room 1: In the glass case on the right, you’ll see the suit of armor worn by the great Venetian mercenary general, Gattamelata (far right, on horseback), as well as “baby’s first armor” (how soon they grow up!). A full suit of armor could weigh 66 pounds. Before gunpowder, crossbows (look up) were made still more lethal by turning a crank on the end to draw the bow with extra force.
Room 2: In the thick of battle, even horses needed helmets. The hefty broadswords were brandished two-handed by the strongest and bravest soldiers who waded into enemy lines. Suspended from the ceil- ing is a large triangular banner captured from the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1571).
Room 3: At the far (left) end of the room is a very, very early
(17th-century) attempt at a 20-barrel machine gun. On the walls and
weapons, the “C-X” insignia means that this was the private stash of
the “Council of Ten.”
Room 4: In this room, rifles and pistols enter the picture. Don’t miss the glass case in the corner, with a tiny crossbow, some torture devices (including an effective-looking thumbscrew), the wooden “devil’s box” (a clever item that could fire in four directions at once),
and a nasty, two-holed chastity belt. These disheartening “in
breeches” were worn by the devoted wife of the Lord of Padua, Exit the Armory Museum. Go downstairs, turn left, and pass through the long hall with a wood-beam ceiling. Now turn right and open your eyes as wide as you can to see the….
Hall of the Grand Council (Sala del Maggiore Consiglio)
It took a room this size to contain the grandeur of the Most Serene Republic. This huge room (175 by 80 feet) could accommodate up to 2,600 people at one time. The engineering is remarkable. The celling is like the deck of a ship-its hull is the rooftop, creating a huge attic above that.
The doge presided from the raised dais, while the nobles-the backbone of the empire-filled the center and lined the long walls. Nobles were generally wealthy men over 25, but the title had less to do with money than with long bloodlines. In theory, the doge, the Senate and the Council of Ten were all subordinate to the Grand Council of nobles who elected them.
On the wall over the doge’s throne is Tintoretto’s monsterpiece, Paradise, the largest oil painting in the world. At 570 square feet, it could be sliced up to wallpaper an apartment with enough left over for placemats.
Christ and Mary are at the top of heaven, surrounded by 500 people. It’s rush hour in heaven, and all the good Venetians made it. Tintoretto worked on this in the last years of his long life. On the day it was finished, his daughter died. He got his brush out again and painted her as saint number 501. She’s dead-center with the blue skirt, hands clasped, getting sucked up to heaven. (At least that’s what an Italian tour guide told me.)
Veronese’s The Apotheosis of Venice (on the ceiling at the Tintoretto end-view it from the top) is a typically unsubtle work showing Lady Venice being crowned a goddess by an angel. Ringing the hall are portraits, in chronological order, of the first 76 doges. The one at the far end that’s blacked out is the notorious Doge Marin Falier, who opposed the will of the Grand Council in 1355. He was tried for treason, beheaded, and airbrushed from history. Along the entire wall to the right of Paradise, the Siege of Constantinople (by Tintoretto’s son, Domenico) shows Venice’s greatest military (if not moral) victory, the conquest of the fellow- Christian city of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade (see side- bar on page 53). The sneaky Venetians (in the fifth painting) attacked the mighty city from the water. They cozied their galleys right up to the dock and scooted across the masts to the city walls. The gates open, the Byzantine emperor parades out to surrender, and tiny Doge
Dandolo says, “Let’s go in and steal some bronze horses.” But soon Venice would begin its long slide into historical obliv- ion. The rising Ottoman Turks gobbled up Venice’s trading outposts.
New trade routes to the East and America broke Venice’s monopoly trade. The once-mighty empire was reduced to little more than the c itself, a tourist town with a reputation for decadence. Finally, in th the French general Napoleon marched into town shouting “Liber egalité, fraternité.” The Most Serene Republic was overthrown, the last doge was deposed in the name of modern democracy.
Consider reading about the prisons here in the Grand Council To reach the prisons, exit the Grand Hall by squeezing through where there are more benches and fewer rats.
Hadoor to the left of Tintoretto’s monsterpiece. Follow signs for Prigion Ponte dei Sospiri, passing through several rooms. In a room adjoining Room 31, you’ll find a narrow staircase going down, following sig to the prisons. (Don’t miss it, or you’ll miss the prisons altogether a end up at the bookshop near the exit.) Then cross the covered Bridge Sighs over the canal to the prisons. Start your visit in the cells to your left.
The palace had its own dungeons. In the privacy of own home, a dog could oversee the sentencing, torturing, and jailing of political oppo nents. By the 1500s, the dungeons were full of political prisoners, so new prisons were built across the canal connected with a covered bridge.
Circle the cells. Medieval justice was harsh. The cells consisted of cold stone with heavily barred windows, a wooden plank for a bed a shelf, and a bucket. (My question: What did they put on the shelf? You can feel the cold and damp. Notice the carvings made by prison- ers-from olden days up until 1930-on some of the stone windowsills of the cells, especially in the far corner of the building.
Explore the rest of the prisons. You can descend lower to the no- torious cells known as “the wells”-so-called because they were deep wet, and cramped. Or stay on this floor, where there’s a room display- ing ceramic shards found in archaeological digs. Adjoining that are more cells, including the farthest cell, where you can see the bored prisoners’ compelling and sometimes artistic graffiti. The singing gondoliers outside are a reminder of how tantalizingly close these p ful prisoners were to one of the world’s finest cities.