The Palazzo Ducale was originally built in the 800’s as a fortress that enclosed both the personal residence of the Doge (the Duke who governed early Venice) and the first church in San Marco. Most of what now exists dates from the 1300’s. It became the seat of Venetian government in subsequent centuries and is an excellent example of Venetian Gothic architecture. As with much of Venice, art and details that you see are reconstructed from original pieces. In the case of this palace, you are looking at reconstructions of pieces that were destroyed in several fires between 976 and 1577.
The sheer amount of sculpture in the courtyard outside of the Doge’s apartments is remarkable, and I wander there for quite a while. The most impressive section of the courtyard is the Foscari Arch (pictured above), dating from the late 15th century, topped with gothic towers and ornamented with statuary symbolizing the arts, the work of masters of the Lombard School.
Entering the palazzo, the first artifact I see on the portico is an ornately carved black gondola with an enclosed box over the seat, which would have provided shelter and privacy to the Doge on his excursions on the canal.
One of the next things I see on the portico is a lion face relief on the wall, with a slot for a mouth, above a carved placard that reads “Denontie Secrete Inmaterie Distato.” I later learned that it was a receiving box for secret notes from citizens who were turning in other citizens for transgressions, although the local magistrates rarely took action on these accusations. I would see a few other, less ornate boxes throughout this building.
I check my bag before entering the palace, which was unfortunate, as I didn’t think to take my camera out first, nor did it occur to me to go back to retrieve it. DOH!!!
I enter the palace via the Scala d’Oro – the Golden Staircase – named after the 24-carat gold leaf adorning the arched, stucco ceiling, built by command of Doge Gritti during the mid-1500’s. At the top of the staircase began the Doge’s apartments, both public rooms, and later, private ones. There are no furnishings because each doge was expected to provide his own, and upon his death the furnishings were returned to his heirs.
The first room is a reception chamber, filled with maps (the originals dated to the late 15th century), and two 6-foot globes on pedestals (18th century), meant to underscore the importance of Venice as a world power. A massive fireplace is wrapped in scaffolding. I take my shoes off because I feel like I am making too much noise against the hardwood floors, but am quickly told by the docents to put them back on again.
I think it was at the Ritratti, when I turn a corner, neck craned back with my eyes on the ceiling, completely oblivious to other people. Suddenly I hear a gasp, and bring my gaze down to see an Italian couple, wide-eyed, looking back at me. “My god,” the man says, “when you walked into the room in your costume, we were just transported… Thank you!” I told him I was equally transported, being able to walk around in these buildings in period costume. I offered a humble “Grazie” before they left. What an experience that was, for all three of us!
The next floor houses the chambers of government. Incredibly lavish, every single surface of every room is ornamented with paint, gold, and fresco. My favorites are the Sala del Senato (the Senate Room), and the immense Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Legislature Room, shown here). It measures 175′ x 80′, about half the size of an American football field, and the largest room uninterrupted by support columns in all of Europe.
My least favorite room is the Quarantie (the Tribunals of Forty) where justice was meted out. This room has a distinctly different smell than the rest of the rooms, and was one of the last rooms that an accused person would stand in before crossing over the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) which links the courtrooms to the prisons on the other side of a canal.
The Armory displays a variety of weaponry dating back to the 14th century. Fully armored horses stand in a corner, behind glass. Two suits of tournament armor dating from 1490, and a child-sized suit of armor recovered from a battlefield in 1515. The obligatory array of swords, a pair of exquisite Turkish recurve bows, 17th century guns, and an ornate bronze canon whose barrel could only facilitate shot between the size of a golf and a tennis ball. I’m so mad that I don’t have my camera…
From here, I walk over the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1602 but named in the 19th century because the view through two small, iron-grated windows was the last glimpse of Venice a prisoner would have before being committed to a stone cell for the rest of his life. The staircase leading to the prison cells is oppressive, and I’m glad that it isn’t more crowded. These rooms, considered by standards of the day to be more humane than most, would have still driven me to the brink of insanity had I had to stay in them for more than a few hours. Low arched ceilings over nothing more than a bench, originally lined with wood planking, and windowless save for the iron grate across the front. These cells continued to be used as an active prison into the 1930’s.
I find the gift shop/museum store, but it’s woefully inadequate. I’m unhappy at the lack of photos of the Armory in the museum catalog. The triptychs and icons in the apartments aren’t in the guide either, which is really unfortunate since I wanted to learn more about the one that showed the Virgin Mary in a 14th century red dress with fur-lined tippets, crucified, with men in gothic plate armor fainted away at the foot of her cross. (Detail about this tryptych still elude me as of February 2021).
After a few more rooms, I arrive back out on the second story portico. I am standing at the top of the Scala dei Gigante, (Gigantic Staircase) which was the ceremonial approach to the palace, and the place where the Doge was crowned. It is flanked on either side by statues of Mars and Neptune, installed in the mid-16th century.
As I stand in that spot, I start to laugh. The butts of both Mars and Neptune are at eye-level — mooning the Doge during some of his most important ceremonies. I wonder if the placement of these two statues was politically motivated, and then I start laughing again because it will be one of my lasting memories of this place.
* * *
Heather Daveno is from Seattle, Washington, where she works as an office manager by day
and a self taught hatmaker by night. She spent most of her pandemic lockdown in 2020-2021 creating 800 masks for the Masks4Millions project.
In a normal year, her travels inspire her hats, which she handcrafts from reclaimed textiles and found objects. You can find her hats and masks for sale at August Phoenix Hats. She is currently reissuing her original journals as “Director’s Cuts” with expanded text and previously unpublished photos, which you can read for free at Daveno Travels.