Chamber of the Great Council, Doge’s Palace

Chamber of the Great Council (Italian: Sala del Maggior Consiglio). Restructured in the 14th century, the Chamber was decorated with a fresco by Guariento and later with works by the most famous artists of the period, including Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Alvise Vivarini, Carpaccio, Bellini, Pordenone and Titian. 53 meters long and 25 meters wide, this is not only the largest and most majestic chamber in the Doge’s Palace, but also one of the largest rooms in Europe. Here, meetings of the Great Council were held, the most important political body in the Republic. A very ancient institution, this Council was made up of all the male members of patrician Venetian families over 25 years old, irrespective of their individual status, merits or wealth. This was why, in spite of the restrictions in its powers that the Senate introduced over the centuries, the Great Council continued to be seen as bastion of republican equality. The Council had the right to call to account all the other authorities and bodies of the State when it seemed that their powers were getting excessive and needed to be trimmed. The 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen who sat in the Council always considered themselves guardians of the laws that were the basis of all the other authorities within the State. This room also housed the first phases in the election of a new Doge, which in the later stages would pass into the Sala dello Scrutinio. These voting procedures were extremely long and complex in order to frustrate any attempts of cheating. Every Sunday, when the bells of St. Mark’s rang, the Council members would gather in the hall with the Doge presiding at the center of the podium and his counselors occupying double rows of seats that ran the entire length of the room. Soon after work on the new hall had been completed, the 1577 fire damaged not only this Chamber but also the Sala dello Scrutinio. The structural damage was soon restored, respecting the original layout, and all works were finished within few years, ending in 1579-80. The decoration of the restored structure involved artists such as Veronese, Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, and Palma il Giovane. The walls were decorated with episodes of the Venetian history, with particular reference to the city’s relations with the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, while the ceiling was decorated with the Virtues and individual examples of Venetian heroism, and a central panel containing an allegorical glorification of the Republic. Facing each other in groups of six, the twelve wall paintings depict acts of valor or incidents of war that had occurred during the city’s history. Immediately below the ceiling runs a frieze with portraits of the first 76 doges (the portraits of the others are to be found in the Sala dello Scrutinio); commissioned from Jacopo Tintoretto, most of these paintings are in fact the work of his son, Domenico. Each Doge holds a scroll bearing a reference to his most important achievements, while Doge Marin Faliero, who attempted a coup d’état in 1355, is represented simply by a black cloth (a traitor to the Republic, he was not only condemned to death but also to damnatio memoriae, the total eradication of his memory and name). One of the long walls, behind the Doge’s throne, is occupied by the longest canvas painting in the world, the Paradiso, which Jacopo Tintoretto and workshop produced between 1588 and 1592 to replace the Guariento fresco that had been damaged in the fire.

Chamber of the Great Council is the Palace’s main hall, located on the corner between the pier and the Piazzetta, receives light through seven large ogival windows. It was once the seat of the highest Venetian magistracy, the Maggior Consiglio, which had the task of legislating and electing all the main offices of the State. Born as a popular assembly, it later acquired strongly noble characters, whose apotheosis occurred in 1297 with the Serrata del Maggior Consiglio, which excluded from it all citizens not belonging to aristocratic families enrolled in the so-called Golden Book or under the age of twenty-five years. The interior of the room is completely free of support columns and the structural tightness of the ceiling is possible thanks to an intelligent system of beams and powerful trusses. Its enormous dimensions, 53.50 meters in length by 25 in width and 15.40 in height, which made it one of the largest rooms in Europe, are due to the number of participants in the Maggior Consiglio, arrived to comprise between 1200 and 2000 members, who settled on a series of long double-seat benches placed perpendicular to the back wall, where was placed the podium intended for the Doge and the Signoria. The venue was also used for other functions, such as solemn receptions to celebrate the visit of foreign political authorities, includingHenry III of France. After the fall of the Serenissima, the Democratic Municipality began to gather in this hall, which soon had to leave the first place to the Marciana National Library and then, once the Austrians were expelled, to the Assembly of the provisional government.

Renovated a first time in the fourteenth century, the new paintings were entrusted to Guariento, who made the frescoes on the back wall, of which some fragments are still preserved in the Sala del Guariento, in Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Gentile Bellini, to Alvise Vivarini, to Vittore Carpaccio, to Antonio Veneziano, to Jacobello del Fiore and to Michele Giambono. Destroyed by fire in 1577, the hall was again decorated between 1578 and 1585 byPaolo Veronese, Tintoretto, Jacopo Palma the Younger, Francesco Bassano, Andrea Vicentino and Gerolamo Gambarato. The preparatory drawings were made by the Florentine monk Gerolamo de Bardi and by the Venetian historian Francesco Sansovino, son of the most famous Jacopo, who decided to divide the subjects to be realized on the walls into four groups. The result was grandiose and extremely rich, despite the value of the individual works is neither exalted nor up to the fame of the authors themselves, who were affected by the decadent mannerism of the Venetian painting environment during the sixteenth century.

Tintoretto was entrusted in particular with the decoration that covers the entire back wall, behind the throne: the Paradiso, which is the largest canvas in the world, with its twenty-two meters in length for seven and a half meters. It was painted between 1588 and 1592 in collaboration with his son Domenico, divided into several parts and then assembled, replacing the previous fresco by Guariento, representing the same theme. For its realization, the Senate asked the most famous painters of the time, Tintoretto, Veronese, Palma the young and Bassano. Three sketches for the work, made later by Tintoretto, are now kept in the Louvre, at the Lille Museum and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. A further sketch, made by Jacopo Tintoretto, attributed in 1974 after a restoration intervention, is currently exhibited in Venice at Palazzo Contarini del Bovolo. In this work the artist imagines a celestial world that revolves around the glory of Christ and the Virgin.

The huge ceiling encloses, among large gilded wooden frames, 35 paintings on canvas, separated by a complex frame made up of folders, swirls and festoons. This structure, conceived by Cristoforo Sorte, which divided it into thirty-five departments of different importance, developed in three orders. Of the thirty-five works, twenty are monochromes and represent historical facts painted by minor artists, while the fifteen major paintings concern historical and allegorical facts of which the Serenissima is the protagonist, by Tintoretto, Veronese, Palma il Giovane and Bassano. Among these we remember the painting Pietro Mocenigo leads the assault on the city of Smyrna. The most famous painting, theTriumph of Venice, crowned by Vittoria, the large oval in the center of the ceiling towards the Paradiso is from the Veronese area. This is the last great allegorical painting of the Veronese, which chose to depict a personification of Venice surrounded by the goddesses of Olympus and crowned by a Victory. The anomalous position of the Victory, which seems almost immortalized in the act of making a somersault, may wish to allude to the recently passed defeats of Venice in the fight against the Ottomans. In the central ovate is depicted the Apotheosis of Nicolò Da Ponte, the doge under whose government the imposing decorative apparatus was realized.

Immediately under the ceiling there is a frieze with portraits of the first seventy-six doges of Venetian history (the portraits of the remaining ones are placed in the Scrutinio hall). These are imaginary effigies, as those preceding 1577 were destroyed in the fire, commissioned to Jacopo Tintoretto but carried out largely by his son Domenico. Chronologically, this work includes all the doges included between the dogate of Obelerio Antenoreo and the government of Francesco Venier. On the cartouche that every doge holds in his hands are reported the most important works of his dogado. The doge Marin Faliero, who attempted a coup d’état in 1355, is represented by a black cloth: condemned in life to the beheading and the damnatio memoriae, or the total cancellation of his name and image, as a traitor of the republican institution. On the ceiling, in correspondence of the portraits, the coat of arms of the doge is placed.

Along the remaining walls there are a total of twenty-one paintings, mostly made in 1587, which narrate episodes and events belonging to the history of the Serenissima, celebrating its origin. These works, performed among others by Benedetto and Carletto Caliari, students of Veronese, Leandro Bassano, Jacopo Tintoretto, Andrea Vicentino, Palma the Younger, Giulio Del Moro, Antonio Vassilacchi, Giovanni Le Clerc, can be divided into three cycles, which describe each a different historical moment:

the participation of the Serenissima, led by Sebastiano Ziani, to the struggles for power between the Church and the Empire, led respectively by Pope Alexander III and Frederick Barbarossa (1176 – 1177). This group consists of eleven paintings and is located on the wall in front of the windows;
the Fourth Crusade (1201 – 1204), whose representation is on the opposite wall;
the victory of the Serenissima on the Republic of Genoa (1377 – 1378). Among these works we remember The Doge Andrea Contarini returns victorious in Venice after winning the Genoese army in Chioggia, one of the last works of Paolo Veronese.

Completely rebuilt on the first floor of the southern wing, in 1340 a series of other works was carried out to be carried out in the building, which did not consist of a real building but rather a widening. These works consisted in building or rearranging the second floor, completing the Hall of the Great Council (remember that, as previously mentioned, this organ continued to meet in the Senate Hall until 1423), in restructuring for the new purposes to which some rooms were adjacent to what would have been of the Maggior Consiglio, in erecting a staircase communicating with the Sala del Maggior Consiglio: the estimated cost for their construction was 950 lire for architecture works and 200 lire for the decorations,

After fifteen months from the opening of this site, the need for other works was decreed, as the room had to become wider than expected: the fact that on 10 March 1342 the floors below the Sala del Maggior Consiglio had already been completed testifies that the reconstruction work had not started again in December 1340 (the year of the aforementioned decree), but already in 1309, as witnessed by the Sansovino. Completed at the end of 1344 the part of the room facing the lagoon, ten experts were called under decree of 30 December 1344 to examine if the walls facing the courtyard were suitable to support the weight of the wall that would surround the room on that side:

“Having completed the part towards the canal of the construction site in the new room of the Maggior Consiglio, it was deemed necessary to examine whether the wall on the side of the palatine court could be made in safety. After the examination on the wall below and on the beams by experts, they gave different responses, so that we could proceed in the best way, understanding what was best done. »

In fact, the wall of the ground floor, which encircled the prisons, held only the porch on the first floor and it was not known whether it would have held up any further stress. This element also contributes to thinking that the factory of the first and second floors took place at different times. Having received the positive opinion from the experts, we proceeded with the construction of the staircase and its door. The work was interrupted due to the plague which broke out in 1348, and resumed on 24 February 1350.

We know that Filippo Calendar tajapiera and Pietro Basejo magister prothus were employed as directors of the work, as well as a large number of unskilled workers, sculptors and expert stonemasons. The director of the works was initially the Basejo, to whose death the Calendar took over. The activity of the first is suggested by the fact that around 1350 the Calendar was commissioned to make a series of trips on behalf of the Serenissima, and always at that time engaged in some military campaigns: this testifies that it had no commitment fixed at the construction site. The Calendar in 1355 was sentenced to death by hanging as a weaver of the conspiracy promoted by the dogeMarin Falier. It is said that his sentence was carried out together with that of his son-in-law and using the famous red columns of the palace balcony, whose location was however altered over time. Having seen the conspiracy an extensive participation among the stonemasons of the Palazzo Ducale, the work remained suspended. The yard remained dormant for various reasons due to war and a second plague. In 1362 the palace was in ruins. Because of the desire of Lorenzo Celsi to conclude the work, they could be said to have been concluded in 1365. However, the Celsi, hated for his arrogant behavior, died in a mysterious way and it was hypothesized that he had been poisoned. After his death, it was decreed that “the doge could not in the future employ public money in the expenses of factories in the building, without the consent of the six councilors, three quarters of the Quarantia and two thirds of the Maggior Consiglio”. It can be said that Palazzo Ducale, after all these works, did not present a very different form from that which is contemporary to us.

Having ascended the throne Marco Corner, he ordered that the Sala del Maggior Consiglio be decorated with paintings: he was contacted among the other artists Guariento of Arpo, who was commissioned to decorate the eastern wall of the room with the theme of Paradise, and more precisely crowning of the Virgin amid the glory of this. Later the same artist dedicated himself to the decoration of the other walls, illustrating the arrival in Venice of Alexander III and the War of Spoleto, as some sources recall. Even the Pisanello worked in this construction, according to the reconstructions of Scipio Maffei. Sansovino affirmed that in the painting, depicting the Emperor Ottone who is directed by his father after being freed from the Serenissima, there was a portrait of Andrea Vendramin, said by many the most beautiful young Venetian of his time: asserting that the great historian commits an error in that at that time the Vendramin was not even born; another mistake made by the Sansovino was to affirm that the room had already been previously decorated.

Among others, it can be hypothesized that Niccolò Semitecolo and Lorenzo Veneziano also took part in the decorative activity. During this decorative work the frieze depicting the faces of the doges was begun for the first time, starting from Obelerio, then reproduced after it had been destroyed by the fire of 1577. The Sanudo states that the inscriptions illustrating the paintings were produced by Francesco Petrarca, which is not impossible. Subsequently, however, after a period of continuous wars (1368 – 1381), Venice found itself in difficult political and economic conditions, and therefore the decoration works (which by now were coming to an end) were interrupted.

After it had been decided to repaint the palatine chapel whose decorations were in ruins, it was Michele Sten who favored the completion of the hall’s decorative work. The ceiling was coffered, decorated with stars, which perhaps alluded to the doge’s crest. Sanudo states that this work remained unfinished for a long time and was only completed in 1406.

In those years a large balcony was built in the central part of the façade facing the sea, in 1404 according to what was reported on it, in the following year according to Sansovino. Whichever of the two dates is taken as true, however, it is erroneous that he sustained Thomas Temanza in attributing to the Calendar the decoration of this work, as the sculptor had already died for half a century (in 1355). Another mistake committed Pietro Selvatico, who gave the whole southern front to 1424, making it contemporary to the one raised under Francesco Foscari.

This error was due to a misinterpretation of what was written on the Chronicle Zancarola, and was reported by Dall’Acqua, who understood the causes and motivated him saying that the chronicler writes what he had reported spoke in the plural of facades of the western side referring to that exterior and that interior. It should also be noted that the date shown on the window (1404) is indicative of the fact that this facade had already been built at the time and that there are substantial differences in the style of the two fronts.

The City’s Major Council
The Maggior Consiglio, formerly Consilium Sapientium (Latin for “Council of the Sages”), was the greatest political organ of the Republic of Venice and met in a special large hall of the Palazzo Ducale.

It was due to the nomination of the Doge (the election procedure was very complicated and included about ten elections and draws) and all the other councils and magistrates, with unlimited powers and sovereigns on any issue. Participation in the Great Council was a hereditary right and exclusive of noble families entered in the Golden Book of Venetian nobility, that it constituted State.

An early Consilium Sapientium probably existed for some time as the personal council of the Doge. However, starting from 1143 a new Consilium was created as a permanent representation of the sovereign popular Concion, supporting the duke in the government. The act formalized the structure in the municipal form of the State, with the birth of the Commune Veneciarum (“Comune di Venezia”). However the Code called “dei Frari” reports the complete list of prosecutors of San Marco, elected by the Major Council since 812, year of election of the first prosecutor: Piero Tradonico (Gradenigo) elected the “XV Lugio” with “balotte” (voting patricians) 400 for si and 19 for the no. This would then date the birth of the Commune Veneciarum almost 200 years before the era of medieval Italian communes.

Not even thirty years later, in 1172 the Consilium was transformed into a sovereign assembly with the name of Maggior Consiglio, initially composed of 35 and later by 100 councilors, to which the members of the new Quarantia organism were added, starting from 1178. From 1207 the councilors, then, were no longer appointed directly by the popular assembly, but by three electors chosen by the latter, then increased to seven in 1230.

The Serrata del Maggior Consiglio
Proposals for the transformation of participation in the council in inheritance law or co-optation by the council itself had already been repeatedly presented and rejected under the dogadi of Giovanni Dandolo, in 1286, and Pietro Gradenigo, in 1296.

But now the will of the aristocratic families and of the same doge Gradenigo to ensure with greater stability and continuity the participation in the government of the Republic, by now too strong, led February 28, 1297 to the Serrata del Maggior Consiglio: this provision opened by law the Major Council to all those who had already been part of it in the four previous years and, every year, forty drawn among their descendants. The reform also increased without limit the members of the Council.

The entry of new members was limited by laws of 1307 and 1316; on July 19, 1315, the creation of the Golden Book was ordered in which to register, at the age of eighteen, the names of those who would have had the right to access the Great Council.

In 1319 there was a final squeeze. We proceeded to a careful scrutiny of the validity of the titles of the members in the Golden Book, after which we proceeded to abolish the possibility of electing new members of the Council, establishing automatic access to the Major Council for all male patricians at the age of 25 of age, with the exception of thirty of them, drawn every year on the day of Santa Barbara, to access it already at the age of twenty: the Maggior Consiglio definitively became a closed and hereditary assembly.

In 1423, the Maggior Consiglio also formally abolished the now useless popular catch.

From the sixteenth century to the fall of the Republic
In 1498 the ecclesiastics were excluded from the Maggior Consiglio and in 1506 and 1526 the registers of births and marriages were established to facilitate the ascertainment of the right of access to the body of the nobility. In 1527 the members of the Maggior Consiglio, selected by law among all the men over twenty years of the most illustrious families of the city, reach the maximum number: no less than 2746 members.

The effect of the provisions of the Serrata had dramatically increased the number of members, so as to get to count in the sixteenth century up to 2095 patricians with the right to sit in the Palazzo Ducale: the obvious difficulties of managing such an organ and the lack of selection on real capacity of those who entered by right, led to delegate the most immediate functions of government to smaller, more streamlined and selected organs, especially in the Senate, without prejudice to the sovereignty of the Major Council and its right of last word on any subject.

In some rare cases, faced with serious dangers or economic difficulties, access to the Great Council was opened to new families, in the face of lavish donations to the State: it was the case of the war of Chioggia and the war of Candia, when, for to sustain the huge expenses of war, the families that most economically supported the war effort were admitted.

Another peculiarity was the creation over time of a division within the nobility between the rich nobility, that is, of the families that had managed over time to keep intact or to increase their economic abilities, and the poor (the so-called Barnabotti), how many they had progressively or suddenly depleted their riches, but continued to maintain the hereditary right to sit in the Maggior Consiglio. This often led the two parts of the nobility to clash in council and opened the possibility to phenomena of buying and selling the votes.

It was the Mayor Council, May 12, 1797, to decree the end of the Republic of Venice, choosing – in front of the Napoleonic invasion – to accept the abdication of the last doge Lodovico Manin and to dissolve the aristocratic assembly: despite the lack of the required legal number of 600 members, the council voted by a very large majority (512 votes in favor, 30 against, 5 abstentions) the end of the Serenissima and the transfer of powers to an indefinite provisional government.

On the occasion of the most important votes, the members of the Maggior Consiglio found themselves in the area opposite the Palazzo ducale, called Broglio (from the ancient brolo, orchard, on which St. Mark’s Square had arisen) where the so-called barnabotti (the fallen and impoverished nobility) contracted their votes with the candidates. This practice gave rise to the term fraud to indicate electoral frauds.