‘I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; A palace and a prison on each hand’ – Lord Byron
As a logical following-up to the first chapter of Venice, we are going to visit the Doge’s Palace together. It can be found on la Piazza San Marco and is adjointed to the Basilica. Quite convenient when you think the church was the Doge’s property and his ‘private’ chapel. The entrance of the Palace is on the side, facing the lagoon (and the numerous gondoliers who will try to catch naïve tourists)
It is an expensive visit. The full price is 19 euros. The reduced price is 12 euros (for children, students or people over 65…). You even have a guided visit of all the secret places of the Palace for one more euro. You can find museum passes online which give you access to all the museums of San Marco. It costs 19,50 for four museums (12,50 for the reduced price) Anyway, make sure you visit this place! It is important! You life depends on it, really! I know it is expensive, and that actually, it seems like a dear tourist trap. Believe me, there is a lot to see and discover in il Palazzo Ducale (you will even be able to walk in the Bridge of Sighs and feel like a convict!) And by the way, in England, if you want to visit a stately home, you can pay a lot of money (i.e. Chatsworth House)…give a few euros to Italy. They need it!
First, I would like to do a (hopefully) short presentation of who were the Doges.
The Doge was the main authority in the Republic of Venice. The name comes from the latin ‘dux’ which gave Duke in English. Their ‘reign’supposedly lasted from 697 to 1797, the date the Republic fell to Napoleon Bonaparte. During this period, 120 Doges ruled Venice. I say ‘supposedly’ because there is a mystery surrounding the first so-called Doge. His name was apparently Paolo Lucio ‘Paoluccio’ Anafesto, but a lot of sources tend to describe him as a legendary character. To this day, we do not know if he really existed. You have to know that after 476 (fall of the Roman Empire), Venice was a strategical possession of the Byzantine Empire. The first Doges were from the Empire, and the title was one of their honorific statuses. From the 8th century onwards, Venice gained more and more independence from Byzance. The Doges emancipated themselves and took part in the development of the Republic of Venice, which was also called ‘La Serenissima’ (by the way, it was not a Republic, in the modern sense of the word)
The power of the Doge changed with time. Until the 12th century, they were absolutely almighty. They could even name their successor…(I mean c’mon!) This led to an increased nepotism in which Doges named sons, protegés and friends. You had proper dynasties ruling over a certain period of time…Such a great Republic, it was!
Realising that it was unfair and slitghly dangerous (…and not really ‘republican’, anyone?), the rights of the Doge were restricted. From 1032 onwards, elections were organised to choose the next leader of the Republic. One century later was created the Council of the Wise which acted as a kind of Parliament. They were meeting with the Doge to decide on the future of Venice. The Council was meant to be a check and balance to prevent the Doge from becoming too powerful. It became known as The Great Council or Major Council later on. The Doge also acted as a check and balance on the Council to reach a perfect equilibrium of power. When elected, the Doge had to take a pledge called ‘La Promissione’ to swear that he would abide by his limited powers. The ideas were quite modern for the time!
Other Councils were created to further check the Doge’s powers (in the 12th century, the Minor Council and the Quarantia which were reunited into la Signoria; the Sapientes and the Council of the Pregadi in the 13th century, plus a Council of Ten in 1335 etc.) Actually, his powers were so diminished at that point that the real power was in the hands of the Great Council. You even had a Supreme Tribunal created in 1454 which was a kind of MI-5. You had 3 main ‘inquisitors’ or spies. One was called ‘Il Rosso’ and two where called ‘I Neri’ (from their robes’ colours) They were meant to watch over the Doge and report on his actions. They must not have been really good if they could be noticed from their clothes…
As a Republic, Venice had an elected leader. The doge, who came from a prominent, powerful and super rich family, was chosen among other men from the Council. I just as much tried to understand the procedures of the election (which evolved with the years)…I felt lost! So, I am not going to explain thoroughly. Let’s just say that the Great Council was in charge of the election. Only the men above 30 years were participating. They elected members of the Council who in their turn chose other members who chose different members who picked other members who actually elected the Doge (headache, uh?) There were seven phases in all. The last step was to randomly pick a name out of the urn for him to be the Doge. If any one had objections, they could expose them, and the candidate whose name had been picked had to answer and justify these objections. His name was then submitted to a vote among the electors. If he did not reach the majority of 25 electors (out of 41), another name had to be picked and the same process unfolded.
I would have loved to spy on the process of the elections. (I can already imagine it on HBO!) Let’s say that our current political leaders did not invent anything, and that corruption and plotting were sadly always an integral part of politics. With this system, they thought it could prevent nepotism and bribing because it looked so random and impossible to predict. Nevertheless, like in any form of government, you can always find a way to influence the election.
The last Doge was called Ludovico Manin.
Okay. I am over with the Doges! Now, I would like us to talk about the Palace itself. It is why you’re here, no?
The ancient Palace dates back from the 10th century. The fortifications can still be seen at some spots. As usual with old structures, the Palace was destroyed (burned, actually). Two centuries later, the Doge Sebastiano Ziano, richest of them all (even before his election), decided to rebuild it as well as reorganise la Piazza San Marco. His Palace was almost completely ‘eaten’ by the addendum of the 14th and 15th century. But then again, another fire destroyed the Doge’s apartement in 1483 (I know, it is like the script of a very bad Steven Seagal film). They rebuilt it, and the new Palace was in its turn burned down (the sequel). It was followed by a period of refurbishment which ended in 1580. After the fall of the Republic (thank you, Napoleon!), the building became a library until it was turned into a museum.
When you pay your ticket (you will remember the price till your death), you go out in the courtyard of the Palace. Look at this beauty!
The courtyard is a rectangular quad with two wells (I mean after 3 fires, it is the least they could have…) surrounded by arcades. The beautiful building in front of you is l’Arco, which leads you to la Porta della Carta, the way out nowadays. It is ideally placed between the Palace and the Basilica. In remote times, it was the official entrance (just imagine facing this monumental doorstep!) La Porta della Carta takes its name from the fact that they used to display the laws and deliberations there.
It was built in the 15th century on the order of the Doge Foscari. He even had the immense modesty to have his sculpture put on top of the gate… (see him, facing the Lion?) Actually, l’Arco inside the Palace is dedicated to him.
Opposite l’Arco, there is a gigantic marble staircase (again, a very humble one…) called la Scala dei Giganti. The ‘giants’ are the Roman gods Mars and Neptune. These two big boys are an allegory of Venice, powerful both on the land and on the seas. You cannot take these stairs. You need to take another one to access the logge (loggias) upstairs. You will find it under the arcades, towards the entrance.
Upstairs, there is one of the most magnificient staircases I have ever seen. It is called la Scala d’Oro (the Steps of Gold)! (aptly named, see?)
Be careful not to tumble…No, because your eyes will be on the ceiling and you will slightly forget that you are ascending the stairs (done that! Been there!) This staircase leads you to the rooms of power or ‘institutional rooms’ that are scattered on 3 different floors. You can also visit the Doge’s Apartement, the armory, the prison and you will be able to pass through the Bridge of Sighs. Thrilling!
Here is what you can hope to see on your tour of the Palace:
It is inspiring to discover what people are capable to achieve in the name of power.
When you continue your visit, and you be led to the Prison, and take a famous bridge.
Il Ponte dei Sospiri, or the Bridge of Sighs, among four in the world (Venice, Cambrige, Oxford and Las Vegas), is situated on the Canal and links the Palace to the Prison. It reminds us of the judiciary role of the Doge and his Council who were in charge of judging suspects. According to the legend, the Bridge of sighs was so called due to the numerous prisoners sighing on their way to their fate in admiring the landscape through the holes of the bridge. Quite a romantic idea, isn’t it? You would not be far from the truth in thinking that since it is in Romantic literature that this myth takes its roots.The thing is, the Bridge of Sighs, added in 1602, was built when the prison was just a jail for minor criminals with no death sentences and long-term emprisonment to face. So, not sure about the name…
But here is views you can have from the Palace. I sighed…and I am not a convict!
The bridge is composed of two distinct corridors seperated by a stone wall. There is the way in and the way out. It is said that if two people kiss on a Gondola under the Bridge of Sighs while the bells of the Campanile are ringing, they will be granted eternal love (quite a lot of requirements).
Here is the end if my account on the Palazzo Ducale. Sorry for my ramble about the Doge, but it might have interested a few of you. I hope…
Visiting the Doge’s Palace is an amazing opportunity to understand the history and evolution of Venice. It is the occasion to embrace what makes Venice so unique and appealing. I hope you start understanding why I think Venice is so beautiful and special.
I will leave you to take pictures of the Palace! I am sure you did not have enough of the institutional rooms. Let’s meet in front of the vaporetti. I have a few things to show you .
I M Gullivering.