The Doge’s Palace, Venice
For some 400 years, much of the trade and commerce in the Mediterranean was dominated by the Venetians. Their vast, maritime empire was controlled from a single building on a tiny island in a marshy lagoon: The Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale. Not only was this the home of the supreme leader of Venice and all of its watery territories, It was the courts, the legislative center, and the jail. Nothing happened in the Mediterranean without the people in this building knowing about it and their decisions shaped Europe while bringing vast wealth to the continent’s most improbable and enchanting republic. First built in the tenth century then added to in fits and starts as Venice grew, the building evolved right along with Venetian society until it was officially made a museum in 1923. Walking through its numerous rooms and passages today is a trip through the history of the old empire.
Visiting the Doge’s Palace: What to See
The Chamber of the Great Council
One of the single largest rooms in all of Europe, the Chamber or Hall of the Great Council is also significant because, in a time of kings and queens, it was a bastion of something that looked vaguely democratic (if you squinted hard enough). Here men from all the patrician Venetian families in Venice met to decide the politics of the Republic. Although not the most representative body, these roughly 2,000 men were essentially the guardians of Venetian law. The Doge might have been their leader but he couldn’t act without their approval. The walls are decorated with friezes of the first 76 Doges, most holding scrolls that contain lists of their accomplishments. The one exception is the black-veiled figure of the Doge Marin Faliero, who attempted to overthrow the council in 1355. He was not only executed, he was condemned to damnatio memoriae – or the complete annihilation of his legacy. The Great Council, you see, was a force to be reckoned with.
The Chamber of the Magistrato alle Leggi (Courtrooms)
While most of Italy sat under Imperial or Roman law, Venice – ever individualistic – had their own ancient legal system that specifically addressed life and business in their unique empire of the sea. In fact, a Republic whose solid territory barely extended outside of their lagoon could not have prospered like Venice unless it had very strict laws governing how their mercantile system worked. It was up to the men who worked in the courtrooms to administer this law and make sure it was upheld to the letter. They carried out their nearly sacred work after 1523 under a triptych by Hieronymus Bosch. This three-sectioned study in strange symbolism, otherworldly landscapes, grotesque characters, and obsession with sin can still be seen hanging in the chambers today.
The Doge’s Apartments
Although the Doge was the supreme leader of the Venetian Republic, he was also considered a servant of the state. That’s why his rooms in the palace are surprisingly small and humble. Any Doge who forgot the order of things did so at his own peril, as the unfortunate Marin Faliero found out. One must-see room is the shield room, which features a collection of large maps showing you just how expansive the Republic became. It also holds paintings glorifying the exploits of famous Venetian explorers like Nicola and Antonio Zen who sailed as far as Greenland. Don’t miss – not that you could – the two giant globes showing the heavens and earth as they were known in the 18th century.
Any empire based on the control of maritime trade routes needs to have a big enough stick to make sure that the competition doesn’t get any ideas. Venice’s armament program was one of the most dynamic and forward-thinking of its age, capable of springing into production at a moment’s notice when war was declared or sieges of the lagoon were threatened. Much of what is on display in the Armory was produced in the Arsenal which was the largest industrial complex in the world in its time. There are also artifacts taken from battles, like Turkish lamps and a triangular standard pillaged from the Battle of Lepanto. Amid the swords, crossbows and suits of armor, keep an eye out for the “devil’s chest”. If not opened properly this booby-trapped box would shoot four pistols and a poisoned arrow at whoever was unlucky enough to pop the clasp. No word on whether it’s still working.
The Secret Rooms
The “Secret Rooms” is the name given to some of the chambers where the darker business of the Empire went on – mainly the backroom negotiations and prisoner confinement. They include the pozzi (small, dank cells for common criminals) and the piombo. (slightly more comfortable cells for more distinguished prisoners). The latter of which were made famous when Casanova was confined to them. Although the famous writer made a point of commenting on how terrible the piombo were, a quick trip to the pozzi will convince anyone that his suffering was very relative. The Secret Rooms also contain the torture chamber, where interrogations took place with the help of a hanging noose and, one would guess, a lot of insinuation.
The New Prison and the Bridge of Sighs
Around 1600, the architect Antonio da Ponte – who designed the version of the Rialto Bridge we all know and love – decided to move the prison cells off of the ground floor of the Doge’s Palace and into an adjacent building on the other side of a canal. In order to connect the prison to the interrogation rooms, he needed a bridge and thus tasked his nephew, Antonio Contino, with the design. This little span quickly entered into Venetian Lore as the Ponte dei Sospiri, or as Lorde Byron translated it, “Bridge of Sighs.” The origin of the name is somewhat obscure. In popular folklore, it comes from the sighs of condemned prisoners heading from the inquisition rooms to their jail cells and experiencing their last views of the beautiful city. However, by the time the bridge was built, there were very few people being condemned to life sentences in the prison. It may be a romantic myth, but even if that’s the case, it’s one we’re happy to believe.
Tips for Visiting the Doge’s Palace
The Doge’s palace has different hours for the high season and low season. From April 1st to October 31st the Palace is open from 8:30am to 7:00pm with last entry at 6:00pm. From November 1st to March 31st, the palace is open from 8:30am to 5:30pm with last entry at 4:30pm. The palace is closed on December 25th and January 1st.
Doge’s Palace tickets also get you into the Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. It’s valid for three months after its purchase but you can only use it once.
A full price (adult) Doge’s Palace ticket costs €19.00. Reduced tickets (€12.00) are available for children between 6 and 14 years old, students from 15 to 25 years old and senior citizens, 65 years and over.
Children from 0 to 5 get in free.
You can book your tickets online at their website.
The Doge’s palace is wheel-chair accessible in all parts but the Secret Rooms, Prisons, and Armory.
Like most other museums in Italy you are not allowed to enter with large backpacks or luggage though you can check them in the cloak room.
The Best Time to Visit the Doge’s Palace
Due to its small size as well as its immense popularity Venice doesn’t have a true off-season. The question is not if it will be crowded but how crowded it will be. Crowds thin slightly from November through February, especially in the museums, but the weather can range from cloudy and misty to floods. Venice doesn’t flood every winter, but during bad winters, the infamous “acqua alta” is a force to be reckoned with. Keep an eye on weather reports before you go. If you choose the normal tourist season (Spring through early Autumn) the best time to visit the Doge’s palace is during non-peak hours, usually meaning first thing in the morning and lunchtime. One way to avoid the crowds at any time is to see the “Secret Rooms.” Because you can only see them with select guided tours, they are often the least crowded places in the Doge’s Palace.
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