INSIDE THE PALAZZO DUCALE: HISTORY OF 8 UNMISSABLE POINTS
The Palazzo Ducale have some many things to see that you’d take one entire day to see the whole Palace (1 day without the secret parts!). If you want to discover the best parts of the Palazzo Ducale, just look here below, we have written the 8 points that, for its political, historical and artistic relevance, are considered the heart of the Palace. These rooms have hosted 120 Doges that ruled the Venice kingdom from these marvelous room.
A visit to jump back in the past, at the Golden Age of the Venetian Republic.
1- IL CORTILE (THE COURTYARD)“
Francesco Foscari is a liar and he says things based on no grounds whatsoever.” These words were addressed to Francesco Foscari by his antecedent Doge Tommaso Mocenigo in the 1420. Foscari would later have a debatable reign, but also the longest one: 34 years in power.
The suspect of Mocenigo was justified in hindsight. But let us back track a moment; the Palazzo Ducale was for a long time made of two separate buildings, one the seat of Government, the other of Justice, and the latter, by 1422, when Mocenigo was in power, was in very bad shape.
There had been talks of tearing it down, to unify the two palaces into one, creating more space for the marvelous courtyard; Nevertheless, such huge amounts of money had already been spent on renovating the Palace, that anyone who dared even propose or modification would be fined heavily. Tommaso Mocenigo felt strongly about the whole thing, so he paid the fine and the unification of the Palace was underway. Unfortunately, he died before it was completed and Francesco Foscari, now doge, finished what Mocenigo had started, Foscari didn’t stop there either and he added the imposing Arco Foscari to the side of the large staircase in the courtyard, naming it after himself of course.
The Palazzo Ducale is, however, still principally gothic in style and the older structure is lives on in the brick walls that surround two sides of the courtyard; it is an austere reddish simplicity that is in harmonious contrast to the white columns, arches and decorations framing the many windows on the newer sides built during the 15th century, mostly during Foscari’s time in fact.
2. LA SCALA DEI GIGANTI (THE STAIRCASE OF GIANTS)
Antonio Rizzo, a celebrated architect in his day, had been found red-handed, having just stolen 12 thousand ducats from the State coffers, and he knew the Venetian state was not forgiving with such crimes. So, he went to Perugia, where he managed to escape justice.
At the time, Rizzo was working on finishing the new Scala dei Giganti, a project that still surprisingly bears his name although it was finalized by another architect. The job had originally come up rather fortunately after a serious calamity, as in 1483 a fire had destroyed a part of the Palazzo, causing permanent damage. However, Doge Francesco Foscari, as ambitious as he was rich, took the opportunity to make something bigger, a magnificent staircase which would, finally, connect the courtyard to the upper side of the first floor.
However this is now known as the Scala dei Giganti – the Staircase of the Giants – Neptune and Mars made their appearance on the top only in 1567. Venice’s power over the sea and over the land were unquestionable, and of these visitors ascending the steps should be reminded, as they walked between the Greek gods, looking up to the winged Lion of St. Mark’s, which seemed to tower over Pagan gods and men alike.
3. APPARTAMENTI DEL DOGE (THE DOGE’S APARTAMENT)
Every night the the Doge Mocenigo went to his private chapel to light a candle for his died wife. After prayer one night in 1483, he made his way back to his rooms, as one of the domestics began blowing out the candelas, all but one.
At night the burning candle fell to the ground and fire spread rapidly around the chapel, making its way out into the doge’s apartments with great ease, as almost everything was made of wood, and in no time many of the rooms were cremated. Mocenigo survived, however. And as a testament to his strength of character, he wasted no time in having the apartments rebuilt and expanded. Unfortunately, hedied of the plague before he could see the work finished.
On 20th December 1577 another fire devasted the Palazzo Ducale. After the destruction there was one simple question to answer: destroy and rebuild or repair? The coffers of the state were already squeezed tight by to the black plague epidemy and so the second solution won; had it not, we would be speaking of a completely different building, a different Venice really.
4. SALA DELLO SCRUTINIO (THE BALLOTS HALL)
“Books live, speak and converse with us, they teach us, they train us, they console us. Without them men would have no memory.” wrote Cardinal Bessarion from Constantinople in a letter to the Doge in 1468, where he explained how he had managed to preserve the great texts from Greek and Latin antiquity, pleading that the Venetian Republic take them, because they were unsafe in Constantinople, since the city was under siege at the time and the books could easily have been burned for ever; he saw Venice as the safest place where no harm could come to them, and where they could live on “for the general good of men”. And so, the books arrived, and they were stored here for many decades, in the Library, which later became the Sala dello Scrutinio where ballots were undertaken in great secrecy during the election of the Doge. The room continued its dual function, but book donations kept coming in, and there didn’t seem to be much room for them, moreover the Ballot officers felt they deserved their own room. And so Sansovino, the great Renaissance architect, was commissioned to build the Marciana Library directly opposite the Doge’s Palace, to welcome the increasing number of books that had begun arriving in the city from all the over the world.
In the meantime, the wars that had so preoccupied cardinal Bessarion between the Christians of the West and the Ottoman Empire continued, and the victory came for Venice in 1571 at Lepanto, where the Turks were finally defeated.
Rather fittingly, in Lepanto a great book began taking shape in the mind of a Spanish soldier who had fought in the battle himself but was captured and spent two years in a prison cell, where he used the time wisely and creatively. On his return to Spain, Miguel de Cervantes began writing what was to be the first modern novel in European history, Don Quixote.
5. SALA DEL MAGGIOR CONSIGLIO (MAJOR COUNCIL HALL)
The first Venetian doge came into power in 697, and the last ended his reign with the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797. Almost exactly in between these two dates is a watershed moment in the city’s history, the Serrata del Maggior Consiglio of 1297, often simply referred to as the “Serrata”, meaning the “closure”. To understand the weight of the Serrata is to understand the ingenuity of Venetian politics and, therefore, Venetian mentality.
Venice had always prided itself in making sure that no one individual had too much power, indeed as time went by, the doge’s powers decreased more and more, becoming a symbolic figure very much, or as many put it, a puppet figure. The Maggior Consiglio, originally a small group of men who worked as aids to the doge, over time became the official decision-‐makers of the State working alongside him. The members had to be elected and so there was no hereditary passing of power, and this was something the many noble families in Venice wanted to change. After the Serrata of 1297 was enacted, anyone who had been part of the Maggior Consiglio in the previous four years could be part of it again, and every year 40 new people would enter, as long as they were relatives of any of the member families in the Consiglio. In essence, membership in the Maggior Consiglio was restricted to fewer noble families but it opened up to a greater number of people, which in the year 1310 reached 1200 people, and many of course complained that “the Room is still not big enough”, so in time it was expanded to its current size. The adorning of the room had cost so much money that anyone who dared to suggest any improvements would have been fined heavily. Although not the Paradise Jacopo Tintoretto imagined so spectacularly on the wall of the Sala, Venetian patricians had found one of the best possible systems to maintain political stability, with checks and balances that reminded everyone how efficient power is when spread out across large numbers.
Although the Paradise is the most impressive work here, Tintoretto’s son Domenico is to thank for a series of portraits of the dogi; they all tell us something of their reign in a flowing ribbon; however, there is a black drape where Falier is supposed to be, punishment for his attempt to seize complete control of the state, for which he was “decapitati pro criminibus”.
6. SALA DEL COLLEGIO (COSTITUENCY HALL)
On a sweltering summer day in 1479, Venice’s official portrait artist, Gentile Bellini, made his way into the royal court at Constantinople and met with Sultan Mehmet II for the first time. This was to be one of many encounters over the two years that Bellini would spend at the court of Constantinople, until 1481. He was there on diplomatic duties, and part of this entailed painting portraits of the Sultan, as a gift for his kind hospitality. These portraits were rather exotic for the time, but they were, most of all, an original way of conducting diplomatic relations.
Gentile Bellini’s stay was rather extraordinary of course, because Venetian diplomats usually arrived at foreign courts presenting other gifts, although always very precious: luxury textiles, fur robes, silk gowns and even food, Parmisan cheese being a favourite with Muslim sultans in the middle-‐east. Diplomacy was a skill which Venetians mastered to perfection, and they knew that at the core it was with beautiful physical gifts that good personal relationships were built. And good relationships meant great business, and again, business meant power, which is what Venice liked to hold onto.
But diplomacy is, and always has been, of course a two-‐way street, and Venetians understood that they had to receive as sumptuously as they had to donate. Sala del Collegio here is where the Doge and his entourage met with foreign ambassadors, and clearly, the goal was to impress them even before words were exchanged or deals discussed. And as diplomats were left waiting in this hall, humming and looking around at the walls and ceiling, none would have been unimpressed by the splendor of the works by two of the greatest Renaissance artists in Venice, Jacopo Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese. In essence, the hosts were telling them quite clearly: we reserve only the best for you!
7. SALA DEL CONSIGLIO DEI DIECI (THE COUNCIL OF 10)
In 1310 a young man from a noble background called Bajamonte Tiepolo had been growing more and more restless, unable to tolerate the state’s efforts to concentrate power in the hands of few noble families, from which his own family was exempt. So, full of youthful indignation, he and other two companions managed to gather much popular support and devised a coup to overthrow the doge and reshuffle the political situation. The three met in the middle of the night in mid-‐June with hundreds of followers under the clocktower in St. Mark’s Square, ready to march on the Palazzo Ducale. In Venice, however, the walls have always had eyes, and the Doge’s men were warned about the upcoming danger only moments before, but, still, just in time.
Pietro Gradenigo, the doge, was able to contain the revolt; however, it was a close call something like this, of course, was never to happen again, so the very next day he assembled a new office, the Consiglio dei Dieci, the Council of 10. 10 individuals were appointed with a special mandate to ensure the security of the State, and they were to use any means necessary to do so. The head of the first Consiglio dei Dieci was a man called Marino Falier, and he oversaw the trial of young Bajamonte Tiepolo and his fellow conspirators, who were immediately
Sentenced to permanent exile. This was not the end of Marino Falier, however, who made a name for himself when he too became doge years later. Perhaps over-‐confident in his knowledge of Venetian espionage and counter-‐espionage, he attempted to seize total power with the help of some hundred men, but his plans were thwarted just like Tiepolo’s years earlier. Falier needed to be made an example of to remind Venetians that no one was above the law in Venice, not even the doge; with no time wasted, he was quickly put on trial, sentenced to death and beheaded.
The Consiglio dei Dieci had initially been set up as a temporary measure until things quieted down, but clearly their services were needed and they developed into a true secret service agency, with a web of spies and informants all across the city. Perhaps the first inkling into how a police state is formed.
8. SALA DELLA MILIZIA DEL MAR
As Frederick Barbarossa, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, kneeled down before the pope and lowered his head to kiss his holiness’s shoe, Pope Alexander III suddenly raised his foot and placed it on the Emperor’s neck. Frederick, however, was quick to respond in an effort to salvage his dignity: “Not to you, but to Peter I kneel”, and the Pope, just as quick, sneering down replied “To Peter and to me”. He then helped Frederick up to his feet and gave him the kiss of peace. What the pope was actually doing, however, was demonstrating how much more powerful the Papacy was than his Empire. Doge Sebastiano Ziani was the person who organized and oversaw this rather tense ceremony, since it took place in Venice in 1177. And no coincidence either, because Venice had achieved special status in the eyes of the Church, to the extent that, on the same occasion, the Pope donated a special ring to Ziani, as a way of recognizing Venice’s independence and power from that in Rome. A truly enviable feat for any other leader in the West at the time.
Since that day, once a year, on Ascension Day, the doge would be taken out onto the Bucintoro, the Venetian Dogal ship, and drop the ring into the water, renewing the marriage with the sea. After all, it was thanks to the sea that Venice had gained and maintained its enormous power, whether their ships crossed it for commerce or for war. And it was in this hall, the Sala della Milizia del Mar, that 20 experienced men would meet to recruit the crew for every ship going into battle.
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