THE DOGE'S PALACE (PALAZZO DUCALE)
The Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale) was the residence of the Doge of Venice, the highest authority of the Republic. The palace was also the headquarters of the Government and the Law Courts building of the Republic of Venice. The most important decisions which marked the destiny of the Serenissima were made inside this palace. The palace is located at the eastern end of St. Mark’s Square and is a masterpiece of Venetian Gothic style. The Doge’s palace is one of the main landmarks of Venice and has been a museum since 1923, visited by approximately 1 million people per year.
The 3 different versions of the Doge’s Palace
The castle (9th century)
Originally the Doge's Palace was the private house of Agnello Partecipazio, the son of a rich merchant, who led the defense of Venice against Pepin in 810 AD and the same year was elected Doge of Venice.
Agnello decided to move the seat of the Government from Malamocco to Rialto, because such area was considered to be safer and he and all his political supporters lived there.
Agnello ordered to redesign his own house and build it like a fortress with towers and water all around, to create the first Doge Palace in Venice history.
The new palace hosted public offices, the Law Courts, the armory, the Doge’s apartment and the prisons.
The Renaissance palace (10th century)
In the X century the palace was partially destroyed by a fire. At the behest of Doge Sebastiano Ziani the whole St. Mark’s Square and the palace were largely restored and renovated.
Two new wings were built: the one that looks toward Saint Mark’s little square (Piazzetta San Marco) hosted the Law Courts, the other wing towards the basin was the seat of the Government. The palace probably looked like the major buildings of that time, that is Venetian-Bizanthyine style.
The only remaining features that can still be seen today are the wall base, made of Istrian stone, and the brick paving in herringbone pattern.
The Doge’s Palace final version (14th century)
In the late XIII century the number of the Great Council's members was increased from 317 to 1017; such change brought the need to redesign the palace layout; starting from 1340 a number of works were carried out to reshape the palace to the present Gothic style appearance. The wing facing the basin (the Seat of the Government) was restored to host the room of the Great Council (Maggior Consiglio) and the facade was built as a triumph of Gothic style with an arcade on the ground floor, open loggias on the first floor and pinnacle decoration on the roof. The wing towards the square (Law Courts) was restored much later in 1424 and the facade was built as a continuation of the other wing in the same Gothic style. The "Reinassance" wing was restored from 1483 to 1565 and contained the Doge's apartment and several Government offices.
Reverse structure - lightness
Medieval buildings were usually constructed with a strong lower part for defensive purpose, they would then get lighter and lighter towards the top, with arches, loggias and crenellation. In Venice there was no need for strong buildings as defense was provided by the surrounding water and the navy. The Doge's Palace is a remarkable example of Venetian Gothic architecture where lightness is one of the main elements. The palace seems to be built the other way around compared to its Italian counterparts, with an arcade of Gothic arches at the bottom, loggias on the first floor and the full solid wall on the top. Such peculiar configuration with the refined decoration, the 36 columns of the ground floor, the 71 more slender columns of the "loggia", the asymmetrical windows and the balconies, conveys a sense of lightness to the palace, despite its considerable size. The solid full wall facade is lightened by the checkered pattern of the pinkish and white bricks: red Verona marble alternate with white Istrian stone to make a polychrome brickwork that draws inspiration from Persian geometrical wall patterns. The crenellation of the roof with pinnacles on the corners also draws inspiration from Islamic models and confers the building even more lightness and have it soar in the sky.
The Doge's Palace as the Headquarters of Knowledge
In some cases it is very difficult to understand the meaning of the images carved in the walls of the palace, but it is believed that the intention of the designers was to adorn the palace with a number of images that could work as a summary of human knowledge so that the palace could be symbolically perceived as the Headquarters of Wisdom and Knowledge. Following a typical medieval encyclopedic tradition, the walls of the palace were studded with images from both the visible-physical world and the invisible-moral universe: the general picture that the palace conveys to the onlooker is one where the representations of everday life trascend their ordinary functions to achieve a broader symbolic meaning. For example, the representations of images of human arts and crafts are not just meant as realistic details: the deeper meaning lies in the religious belief that human work, rooted in the original sin of Adam and Eve, is the only way to reach salvation.
There are two main facades: the oldest one overlooks the lagoon, the other looks towards St. Mark’s Small Square (Piazzetta San Marco).
The third wing looks over a canal called Rio di Palazzo and is connected with the “New Prisons” by the famous “Bridge of Sights” across the water.
The exterior of the Palace is decorated with capitals and bas-reliefs that represent complex allegories. Hundreds of symbols hint to the importance of knowledge. For instance in the top corner of the façade overlooking the lagoon there is a statue of Archangel Gabriel with some documents in his hands which represent knowledge. Knowledge inspires justice that leads to salvation. Underneath are the statues of Adam and Eve that represent ignorance and the original sin that has to be redeemed.
The corners of the facade are decorated with sculptures.
In the right bottom corner there are 2 high-reliefs: the one on top represents archangel Rafael while blessing a faithful.
The sculpture at the bottom represents the biblical episode (Genesis) of Noah’s drunkness elation.
Noah got drunk accidentally and fell asleep; while his younger son, Cam, mocked him, the other two sons, Sem and Jafet, paid respect to their father and covered him with a blanket.
Noah is on the left, naked and waddling, on the corner is the wineyard tree and on the right side are Noah’s sons, one of which is covering Noah’s nudity.
This episode intends to remind that as sons and daughters are supposed to respect their parents, so people are supposed to respect the authority, in this case the Republic of Venice.
On other side of the façade the top corner high relief represent Archangel Michael with a sword and below are Adam and Eve separated by a fig tree and Satan’s snake.
The "Loggias" (The archades)
The loggias run along the three wings of the palace. The style draws inspiration from Byzantine and Oriental architecture and gives the palace its unique sense of lightness: from the outside, it looks like the heavy upper body of the palace is supported by apparently thin, fragile, inlaid colonnades, so that the second floor looks almost suspended in the air. The 9th and 10th columns of the "Loggia" are red instead of white. The Doge used to stand between the red columns while attending the ceremonies that took place in the square and also the death sentences that were carried out between the tall St. Mark and St. Todaro columns. Also, from this spot a spokesman of the Republic used to announce the death sentences to the population. Furthermore, condemned aristocrats would serve their death sentences by being hung right between the two red columns: the convict would be left hanging for a few days so that everyone could see him, as it happened to Bartolomeo Memmo in 1470, who had been condemned for conspiracy against Doge Cristoforo Moro.
Porta della Carta
The main entrance of the Palace is “Porta della Carta” (Door of the papers) which was called like that because they used to stick new bills and decrees on it or maybe because public scribes used to set up their desks not far from it to help illiterate persons write letters or contracts.
The door was built by Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bono.
On top of the door, under the window there is a statue of Doge Falieri kneeled in reverence before St Marks' lion. This statue was estroyed by the French army and was rebuilt as soon as the French domination was over. Around the door are the statues of Fortitute, Prudence, Hope and Charity that represent the virtues and quality that the governors were supposed to have in order to govern the Republic of Venice. On top of the window is the statue of Justice, the overseer.
Two bronze cast wellheads were installed in the courtyard in 1553 (see how Venetian rain-water wells work).
These are the only bronze well heads in Venice and were created by Alfonso Alberghetti (the one close to the Giants' Stairway) and Nicolo de Conti (who was the Director of the Forgy of the Republic of Venice).
The “Giants stairway”, made of Carrara marble, leads from the inner courtyard to the palace. Its name comes from the gigantic statues of Mars and Neptune (made by Jacopo Sansovino in 1565) that were installed at the top of the stairs in 1554 to symbolize Venice military power on land and sea. This is where the major ceremonies of the Republic were held, including the coronation of the Doge.
The “Golden Staircase”
Designed by Jacopo Sansovino in 1555, leads to the Doge’s apartment and to the staterooms.
The name “Golden staircase” comes from the white and golden stucco decorations that adorn the ceiling.
The stairs could only be used by very important guests and dignitaries whose names were listed in the “Golden Book”. Such book contained the names of 200 families whose members may hold very important government positions.
The first flight of stairs is dedicated to Venus and hints to the conquest of Cyprus, Venus’ hometown.
The second flight of stairs that goes to the right is dedicated to Neptune, which represents Venice’s supremacy on the sea.
The Grimani's room
The coat of arms of the Grimani family is portrayed on the ceiling.
The most famous work of art of this room is a painting by Vittore Carpaccio, called the “Leone andante” that represents Saint Mark's Lion, the symbol of the Republic of Venice.
The lion is standing with his front legs on the earth and his back legs on the water to represent the Republic domination of both the land and the sea.
The paintings underneath the ceiling were made by Andrea Vicentino.
The Four Doors Room
This waiting room was redesigned by Andrea Palladio and accomplished by Antonio da Ponte after the fire that broke out in 1574; the decoration of the chamber is meant as a celebration of Venice’s greatness and power. the room was named after its four beautifully decorated monumental doors, supported by marble columns; on top of each door is a statue that represents the meaning of the room the doors is leading to; the barrel-shaped ceiling is decorated with stuccoes by Giovanni Cambi and frescos by Jacopo Tintoretto that portray some of the foreign towns conquered by Venice. The chamber also hosts one famous painting by Tiepolo: Venice receives sea gifts from Neptune (1758): the painting celebrate “La Serenissima” as the queen of the Adriatic Sea, depicted as a patrician lady, who is wearing a ceremonial dress, the Doge’s ermine cloak, pearls (symbol of the sea) and a crown; she is holding the scepter of power and stroking a submissive lion. The figure of Neptune offering her the gifts from the sea is meant to remind that Venice’s prosperity and power come from the sea. The painting used to be installed in the ceiling but is now displayed on a trestle.
This chamber was the waiting room for ambassadors and delegations of other governments that were about to be received by the Great Council. The room is adorned with, among others, paintings by Tintoretto that represent the wise Administration of the Republic of Venice:
Minerva (Venice) rejects Mars (the war) and reaches out to Peace and Harmony
Bacchus and Ariadne get married before Venus. Ariadne represents Venice, loved and crowned by the Gods.
The Marriage of Venice with the Adriatic sea.
The Council Room
The main task of the Council was to arrange and coordinate the issues that would afterwards be discussed and decided upon by the Senate: the Council would receive foreign delegations, take care of the most important correspondence from ambassadors and governors of other powers, and report to the Senate.
The Council was formed by two distinct independent Bodies: the “Wise men” (Savi) and the Seigniory (Signorìa).
There were three classes of “Wise men”: the wise men of the Council who were in charge of Foreign Affairs; the “Wise Men” of the mainland, who would administrate the territories outside the Lagoon; and the “Wise Men of the Orders” (Savi agli Ordini) who were in charge of the maritime issues.
The Seigniory was formed by the three Heads of the “Quarantia” and by the Minor Council which was formed by the Doge and his six advisors (one for each Discrict of Venice).
The institutional balance of the Republic was safeguarded by the interrelation among these independent public offices. The complex Venetian constitution was admired by most European powers as it managed to provide political stability and guarantee social peace as there was not just one person with full powers in charge.
The chamber was destroyed by the fire that broke out in 1574 and was redesigned by Andrea Palladio. The wooden ceiling is fitted with canvas by Paolo Caliari (nicknamed “Il Veronese”): his paintings are meant to be a celebration of the qualities of the Republic of Venice and depict “the good government of the Republic”, the “Faith” on which it is based and the “Virtues” that guide and fortify it.
As important conversations used to take place in this chamber, Veronese created a painting to represent the art of persuading with words, Oratory, the rethorical skill: “The Dialectics” is portrayed as a beautiful young woman who is weaving a web. The painting draws on the Greek myth of Aracnis and is a sort of warning to be careful not to be taken prisoner by other people’s ability to speak (the web).
Room of the Great Council
The “Golden Staircase” leads to “Room of the Great Council” which is the largest audience room in the whole of Italy (length: 54 m, width: 25 m, height: 15 m) and takes the entire south wing of the palace towards the lagoon. The Great Council was the most important political body of the republic of Venice. The Council was made up of all the male members (the number ranged from 1200 to 2000) of Venetian patrician families regardless of their wealth.
Every week at the tolling of St. Mark’s bell, the members and the Doge met up in this room; the throne of the Doge and 6 chairs of members of the Small Council were located in front of the eastern wall while the members sat in their seats in two rows along the length of the room. The Great Council had the task to control all the other offices of the Republic and check that they did not abuse of their power.
The Evangelists, the Patriarchs, the Apostles, martyrs and angles are orbiting around Christ and the Virgin.
Christ is holding the orb and the cross and is wearing the Doge cloak.
The Virgin is kneeling before Christ to plead for Venice.
The archangels Michael and Gabriel are flying towards them holding symbols of mercy and justice.
The Apotheosis of Venice
The large (9m x 6m) oval painting on the ceiling "The Apotheosis of Venice" was made in 1582 by Paolo Veronese; it is an allegorical glorification of the Republic of Venice. The painting depicts a whirl of mythological creatures that rises up to Venice to pay homage and offer her gifts to her. Venice is depicted as an opulent queen surrounded by gods and goddesses who represent her political and financial power.
All around the hall, right under the ceiling, are the portraits of all the first 76 Doges who ruled Venice but Doge Marino Faliero: instead of his portrait there is a black cloth with the writing: "this is the spot for Marino Faliero who was beheaded for treason".
The Chamber of the "Magistrato alle Leggi"
This room hosted the 3 Administrators of the Executive Power (Magistratura dei Conservatori ed esecutori delle leggi e ordini degli uffici di San Marco e di Rialto). This office was very important for Venice given the very high number of court cases triggered by the essentially commercial nature of businesses in Venice.