The Palazzo Ducalo, Venice, also known as the Doge’s Palace, combined with St Mark’s Cathedral and St Mark’s Square make up the most beautiful architectural complex in the world. The Palace on its own is a very impressive complex. Every façade is really striking, whether you approach on a boat via the Lagoon or from La Piazza (St Marks’s Square).
For over a thousand years it was the residence and seat of the rulers, the Doges, of the Venetian Republic. In 1923, the palace was turned into a museum. Since then it has been one of the top draws in Italy with huge crowds going in and out of and around this pale chalky masterpiece of Venetian Gothic architecture and design.
Throughout its history, until it became a museum it has been a place where official, legal, political and commercial work took place. Its fabulous halls and rooms housed public offices, archives room, courtrooms, prisons, torture rooms, the Doge’s apartments, stables, armouries, and other facilities.
The structure, as it stands today, is the culmination of centuries of building, rebuilding, renovation, expansion and a variety of architectural styles. It has suffered the ravages of three devastating fires, the first in the 10th century, the next in 1483 and the last in 1547. No traces of the original building remain but the result of the fires and the growth and power of the Venetian state saw additional construction and extensions to the structure.
Most of what we see today is the result of work started and directed by Doge Bartolomeo Gradenigo in 1340. His efforts were focused mainly on the side facing the lagoon. Before that other major works were carried out under Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172–1178) and Doge Francesco Foscari who extended the building by raising a wing facing the Piazzetta (little Piazza). The highlights of this construction were the ground floor arcade, the delicately beautiful open loggias that run along the first floor, the internal courtyard and the lovely Porta della Carta.
Nearly every Venetian and Italian artist, architect and designer of note has contributed to the Palace at some time or the other. The fires may have destroyed many masterpieces, but they only inspired later exquisite works. Frescoes, paintings, sculptures, staircases, ceilings and nearly every corner and cornice has the touch of some master. Listing them and their works in the Palace would require a separate article to do any justice.
Today the entrance to the Palace is from the Porta Del Frumento leading to the Museo dell’Opera containing a profusion of sculptures. The upper floors are where the Doge’s apartments are located. The second floor contains the Institutional Chambers, the Armoury and the attic prisons (immortalised by the escape by Casanova).
Venice, especially the Palace, was famed for its intrigues, conspiracies, plots, shady politics and assassinations. This led to the construction of a series of backdoors, stairways, secret chambers and hidden corridors running through the Palace. To visit these areas you have to book a scheduled tour in advance. It is called the Secret Itinerary Tour and can only be done in the company of a guide.
A visit to the overwhelmingly marvellous Doge’s Palace generally finishes with a walk-through the attic prisons onto the New Prisons, which is reached by the world-renowned Bridge of Sighs (Ponte dei Sospiri). The Bridge is reputed to have acquired its name from the sigh of the prisoners as they trudged across never to beautiful Venice or the world again.
As you walk out, you too sigh, wishing you had more time to really take in all the Palace has to offer.
Visiting Hours: Daily 8:30 – 7:00 (closes 5:30 in winter), last admission one hour before closing. Closed January 1 and December 25