The Doge’s Palace (Italian: Palazzo Ducale) is a palace built in Venetian Gothic style, and one of the main landmarks of the city of Venice in northern Italy. The Doge’s Palace is a building that stands in the monumental area of Piazza San Marco, in the San Marco district, between homonymous square and the docks of Palazzo Ducale, contiguously to the Basilica of San Marco.
Palazzo Ducale is the very symbol of Venice, in St. Mark’s Square, near to the famous Ponte dei Sospiri. A masterpiece of Gothic architecture, the Doge’s Palace is an impressive structure composed of layers of building elements and ornamentation, from its 14th and 15th century original foundations to the significant Renaissance and opulent Mannerist adjunctions.
Distinguished by a style that, drawing inspiration from Byzantine and Eastern architecture, exemplifies the intensity of the commercial and cultural relations between the Serenissima and the other European states, its beauty is based on an astute aesthetic and physical paradox, connected to the fact that the heavy bulk of the main body is supported by those that look like thin inlaid colonnades. The interiors, now partially deprived of the works that once decorated them, still preserve a large art gallery, which includes works by the most famous Venetian masters, including Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, Tiziano Vecellio, Francesco Bassano, Paolo Veronese, Giambattista Zelotti , Jacopo Palma the Younger, Andrea Vicentino and Antonio Vassilacchi.
Former home of the Venetian doge and magistrates, founded after 812, repeatedly struck by fires and consequently rebuilt, it has followed the history of the Serenissima, from the beginning until the fall: annexed Venice to the Kingdom of Italy and passed the building under the jurisdiction of the latter, it became a museum. Today it houses the headquarters of the Civic Museum of Palazzo Ducale, part of the Venice Civic Museums Foundation (MUVE).
The first Palazzo Ducale, of which there are no remains, was built in Heraclia and there settled around 700, the first doge of the Republic of Venice, Paolo Lucio Anafesto. This was followed by Marcello Tegalliano and Orso Ipato whose assassination, in 737, led to the establishment of a magister militum elected annually. The ducal office was restored in 752. It was built, on the mandate of the new doge, Theodate Ipato, a new seat in the town of Metamaucum, which in turn was transferred in 812 to Rivoaltus, the ancient Rialto, by order of Angelo Partecipazio. In this place, considered more secure, was erected the new building, having the appearance of a castle, on land owned by the doge himself, in the same area occupied by today’s Palazzo Ducale. The building was completed under Pietro IV Candiano; it must have been a rather solid structure because it managed to resist a popular uprising of 976.
In 998 Ottone III, who went to Venice to meet the doge Pietro II Orseolo, was housed in the eastern tower of the building, being impressed by the luxury of the interior. In the palace were also hosted Henry IV of Franconia, when in 1094 he came to Venice to see the remains of Mark the Evangelist, and Henry V in 1116, after a restructuring, not attested by historians of the time, resulting from two fires erupted in the city in 1105.
The first major restructuring in Byzantine style, perhaps by Nicolò Barattiero, who had erected the columns of San Marco and San Todaro and built in a primary form the Rialto bridge, dates back to the dogado of Sebastiano Ziani, accompanied by a more general reorganization the monumental area of Piazza San Marco which took place between 1173 and 1177, aimed at giving a place to the various magistrates. The work probably consists in the construction of the wing facing the Rio di Palazzo on land purchased by the nuns of San Zaccaria and in the extension of the marginal areas of the building, resulting in a substantial reduction of the pier. At the end of the works Pope Alexander III and Federico Barbarossa, who thanks to the dogal intermediation had signed a peace treaty, arrived in Venice, where the emperor remained a guest at the palace for two months.
Although the building was not renovated until 1301, several interventions took place in those years: a chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas was built by Pietro Ziani for ex voto by Enrico Dandolo, the stories of the struggle between the Church and the Papacy were painted in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, while under the Renier Zen doges, Lorenzo Tiepolo and Giovanni Dandolo, the square was paved, the coronation ceremonial was introduced, a small loggia was erected at the foot of the bell tower and the ancient dimension was restored.
Pietro Gradenigo issued a provision that produced a strong increase in the number of councilors (from 317 in 1264 to 1017 in 1311) and that consequently necessitated the transfer of the Maggior Consiglio, located around 1301 in the Sala today called the Senate. In 1309, just after this renovation, whose authors may have been Pietro Basejo or the architect Montagnana, cited by Sansovino and Temanza, the room proved to be too small and were opened in the southern wing, which was immediately demolished and then restored by 1340. The economic prosperity of Giovanni Soranzo’s dogato gave a great impulse to the construction site, directed by Pietro Basejo with the assistance of Filippo Calendario.
Also in the context of this restructuring, the chapel of San Nicolò was enlarged and decorated with the stories of Alexander III, perhaps from Guariento or an unspecified Paul, on the ground floor a cage for lions and new cells was built and in 1332 the wells of the courtyard were set up. A document relating to the construction of a lion marciano suggests that the monumental access to the palace in this period was similar to the current one. In 1340 he ordered the completion of the second floor of the southern wing where, under the direction of the Calendar and the Basejo, after another small expansion, he worked along the internal façade of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, building a staircase and the relative door. Due to the participation of various experts in the conspiracy ordered by Marin Falier and an epidemic of plague, around 1355 the works were suspended, to be later taken up by Lorenzo Celsi, heavily criticized for this decision. Under Marco Corner the Sala del Maggior Consiglio was decorated by Guariento and the Pisanello, but due to a series of wars that economically weakened the Republic, the works were interrupted again until Michele Sten commissioned them to resume them.
After the balcony that overlooks the lagoon was built in 1404, Tommaso Mocenigo managed with difficulty to have the front on the square San Marco also restructured: the works started in 1424, after the Maggior Consiglio had rediscovered its original position . The new restoration was carried out under Francesco Foscari, by the Bon: the Porta della Carta was erected with various delays, the construction of which was not completed before 1452. Under Pasquale Malipiero the front towards the Piazzetta was completed and the stories of Pippin and a globe, while under Cristoforo Moro was erected the Arco Foscari, always by the Bon and always with a considerable delay. In 1468 the room that would later be called the Scrutinio was called the Library, because there were placed the works donated by Cardinal Bessarione, while in 1473 it was decided to replace some of the works of the Hall of the Maggior Consiglio, ruined by infiltration: in the works , which lasted until 1495, among others Giovanni and Gentile Bellini, Giorgione, Tiziano, Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese were engaged.
After a fire had devastated the eastern wing in 1483, reconstruction work was entrusted to Antonio Rizzo, who ordered the demolition of the areas involved in the fire, the construction of the portico and the reconstruction of the Scala dei Giganti to give the palace a more homogeneous appearance. Reopened the construction site in 1493, Rizzo, accused of stealing public money, escaped and the work, almost completed, was entrusted interim to Pietro Lombardo. The facade on the Cortile dei Senatori is difficult to attribute and date. The work proceeded slowly during the dogado of Leonardo Loredan, during which time it was worked along the Canal, due to structural problems it was decided to intervene in the Sala del Senato and demolished a small palatine chapel: to allow the coexistence of works and institutional activities , many offices were transferred and steps were opened, not without disturbing. After the current form was given to the Sala dello Scrutinio in 1531, a clock was built in the wall between the Anticollegio and the Senate and a small watchtower was destroyed. Under Pietro Lando the halls of representation were decorated and under Francesco Donà a decisive turning point was given to the construction site, entrusted to Antonio Abbondi, with the construction of the eastern front and the internal balconies of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. In 1566, two statues of Jacopo Sansovino, Marte and Nettuno were laid.
In 1574 a second fire broke out which, controlled, did not cause significant structural damage, but destroyed many works of art. Chosen Antonio da Ponte as director of the works, with him collaborated Cristoforo Sorte, Andrea Palladio and Vincenzo Scamozzi. The works lasted much longer than the expected three-year period, ending only at the beginning of the seventeenth century, also due to the plague.
The third great fire broke out on December 20, 1577 in the Sala dello Scrutinio: many works of art were destroyed and the lead roof broke up. After the various organs of government had found a new seat, the numerous architects consulted, including Palladio, Francesco Sansovino and the Rusconi, posed the difficult structural question, which mainly concerned the angle towards the Ponte della Paglia. The conflicting opinions led to a four-year restructuring, consisting in the replacement of some structures and that found its stabilization with the return to activity of the Hall of the Maggior Consiglio, which took place in 1578.
The ceilings were designed by Cristoforo Sorte and Antonio da Ponte, while the design of the new pictorial cycles was entrusted to three experts including Gerolamo de Bardi: on the walls were represented the faces of the Doges and the stories of Pope Alexander III. the ceilings would deal with the themes of war, the deeds of citizens and allegories. Among the most famous artists contacted, Paolo Caliari, Jacopo Robusti, Jacopo Palma the Younger, Francesco Bassano and Antonio Aliense: all the construction sites were completed within the sixteenth century.
At the turn of the sixteenth century and the beginning of the next two other works were carried out, the reconversion of the ground floor and the construction of the New Prisons, entrusted respectively to Bartolomeo Manopola, who built the northern side of the court and completed the decoration of the ‘Arco Foscari and Antonio da Ponte and Antonio Contin, who completed the new building by 1602.
Under Antonio Priuli, a large extension of the dog house was built in an adjoining building, then destroyed. A statue of Francesco Maria I Della Rovere was placed in the courtyard, the hall behind the Porta del Frumento was decorated, a triumphal arch dedicated to Francesco Morosini was erected in the Sala dello Scrutinio, the Scala dei Giganti was restored, the five large windows overlooking the courtyard and various paintings were restored.
After the fall of the Republic of Venice, the building became an administrative headquarters and was deprived of many works of art: from 1807 the seat of the Court of Appeal, became the headquarters of the Marciana Library in 1811 and the archaeological statuary was also transferred there. The offices, the bookshop and the museum were moved respectively in 1821, in 1904 and in 1918: at the same time, other small renovations were carried out, which preceded the conversion to the museum and entrustment to the Municipality of the complex followed the annexation to the Kingdom of Italy .
The oldest part of the palace is the wing overlooking the lagoon, the corners of which are decorated with 14th-century sculptures, thought to be by Filippo Calendario and various Lombard artists such as Matteo Raverti and Antonio Bregno. The ground floor arcade and the loggia above are decorated with 14th- and 15th-century capitals, some of which were replaced with copies during the 19th century.
In 1438–1442, Giovanni Bon and Bartolomeo Bon built and adorned the Porta della Carta, which served as the ceremonial entrance to the building. The name of the gateway probably derives either from the fact that this was the area where public scribes set up their desks, or from the nearby location of the cartabum, the archives of state documents. Flanked by Gothic pinnacles, with two figures of the Cardinal Virtues per side, the gateway is crowned by a bust of St. Mark over which rises a statue of Justice with her traditional symbols of sword and scales. In the space above the cornice, there is a sculptural portrait of the Doge Francesco Foscari kneeling before the St. Mark’s Lion. This is, however, a 19th-century work by Luigi Ferrari, created to replace the original destroyed in 1797.
Nowadays, the public entrance to the Doge’s Palace is via the Porta del Frumento, on the waterfront side of the building.
The north side of the courtyard is closed by the junction between the palace and St. Mark’s Basilica, which used to be the Doge’s chapel. At the center of the courtyard stand two well-heads dating from the mid-16th century.
In 1485, the Great Council decided that a ceremonial staircase should be built within the courtyard. The design envisaged a straight axis with the rounded Foscari Arch, with alternate bands of Istrian stone and red Verona marble, linking the staircase to the Porta della Carta, and thus producing one single monumental approach from the Piazza into the heart of the building. Since 1567, the Giants’ Staircase is guarded by Sansovino’s two colossal statues of Mars and Neptune, which represents Venice’s power by land and by sea, and therefore the reason for its name. Members of the Senate gathered before government meetings in the Senator’s Courtyard, to the right of the Giants’ Staircase.
Over the centuries, the Doge’s Palace has been restructured and restored countless times. Due to fires, structural failures, and infiltrations, and new organizational requirements and modifications or complete overhaulings of the ornamental trappings there was hardly a moment in which some kind of works have not been under way at the building. From the Middle Ages, the activities of maintenance and conservation were in the hands of a “technical office”, which was in charge of all such operations and oversaw the workers and their sites: the Opera, or fabbriceria or procuratoria. After the mid-19th century, the Palace seemed to be in such a state of decay that its very survival was in question; thus from 1876 a major restoration plan was launched. The work involved the two facades and the capitals belonging to the ground-floor arcade and the upper loggia: 42 of these, which appeared to be in a specially dilapidated state, were removed and replaced by copies. The originals, some of which were masterpieces of Venetian sculpture of the 14th and 15th centuries, were placed, together with other sculptures from the facades, in an area specifically set aside for this purpose: the Museo dell’Opera. After undergoing thorough and careful restoration works, they are now exhibited, on their original columns, in these 6 rooms of the museum, which are traversed by an ancient wall in great blocks of stone, a remnant of an earlier version of the Palace. The rooms also contain fragments of statues and important architectural and decorative works in stone from the facades of the Palace.
The rooms in which the Doge lived were always located in this area of the palace, between the Rio della Canonica – the water entrance to the building – the present-day Golden Staircase and the apse of St. Mark’s Basilica. The disastrous fire in this part of the building in 1483 made important reconstruction work necessary, with the Doge’s apartments being completed by 1510. The core of these apartments forms a prestigious, though not particularly large, residence, given that the rooms nearest the Golden Staircase had a mixed private and public function. In the private apartments, the Doge could set aside the trappings of office to retire at the end of the day and dine with members of his family amidst furnishings that he had brought from his own house.
Old Prison or Piombi
Prior to the 12th century there were holding cells within the Doge’s Palace but during the 13th and fourteenth centuries more prison spaces were created to occupy the entire ground floor of the southern wing. Again these layouts changed in c.1540 when a compound of the ground floor of the eastern wing was built. Due to the dark, damp and isolated qualities of they came to be known as the Pozzi (the Wells). In 1591 yet more cells were built in the upper eastern wing. Due to the position of their position, directly under the lead roof, they were known as Piombi. Among the famous inmates of the prison were Silvio Pellico and Giacomo Casanova. The latter in his biography describes escaping through the roof, re-entering the palace, and exiting through the Porta della Carta.
Bridge of Sighs and the New Prisons
A corridor leads over the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1614 to link the Doge’s Palace to the structure intended to house the New Prisons. Enclosed and covered on all sides, the bridge contains two separate corridors that run next to each other. That which visitors use today linked the Prisons to the chambers of the Magistrato alle Leggi and the Quarantia Criminal; the other linked the prisons to the State Advocacy rooms and the Parlatorio. Both corridors are linked to the service staircase that leads from the ground floor cells of the Pozzi to the roof cells of the Piombi.
The famous name of the bridge dates from the Romantic period and was supposed to refer to the sighs of prisoners who, passing from the courtroom to the cell in which they would serve their sentence, took a last look at freedom as they glimpsed the lagoon and San Giorgio through the small windows. In the mid-16th century it was decided to build a new structure on the other side of the canal to the side of the palace which would house prisons and the chambers of the magistrates known as the Notte al Criminal. Ultimately linked to the palace by the Bridge of Sighs, the building was intended to improve the conditions for prisoners with larger and more light-filled and airy cells. However, certain sections of the new prisons fall short of this aim, particularly those laid out with passageways on all sides and those cells which give onto the inner courtyard of the building. In keeping with previous traditions, each cell was lined with overlapping planks of larch that were nailed in place.
The only art theft from the Doge’s Palace was executed on 9 October 1991 by Vincenzo Pipino, who hid in one of the cells in the New Prisons after lagging behind a tour group, then crossed the Bridge of Sighs in the middle of the night to the Sala di Censori. In that room was the Madonna col bambino, a work symbolic of “the power of the Venetian state” painted in the early 1500s by a member of the Vivarini school. By the next morning, it was in the possession of the Mala del Brenta organized crime group. The painting was recovered by the police on 7 November 1991.