Architecturally, the Palazzo Ducale is a unique mixture: the style of its exterior, with its geometrically patterned stonework and continuous tracery walls, can only be called Islamicized Gothic, whereas the courtyards and much of the interior are based on classical forms – a blending of influences that led Ruskin to declare it “the central building of the world”. Unquestionably, it is the finest secular building of its era in Europe, and the central building of Venice. The Palazzo Ducale was far more than the residence of the doge – it was the home of all of Venice’s governing councils, its law courts, a sizeable number of its civil servants and even its prisons. All power in the Venetian Republic and its domains was controlled within this one building.
At the head of the network was the doge, the one politician to sit on all the major councils of state and the only one elected for life; he could be immensely influential in policy and appointments, and restrictions were accordingly imposed on his actions to reduce the possibility of his abusing that power – his letters were read by censors and he wasn’t permitted to receive foreign delegations alone. The privileges of the job far outweighed the inconveniences though, and men campaigned for years to increase their chances of election.
The Porta della Carta and courtyard
Like the Basilica, the Palazzo Ducale has been rebuilt many times since its foundation in the first years of the ninth century. The principal entrance to the palazzo – the Porta della Carta – is one of the most ornate Gothic works in the city. It was commissioned in 1438 by Doge Francesco Fóscari from Bartolomeo and Giovanni Bon, but the figures of Fóscari and his lion are replicas – the originals were pulverized in 1797 as a favour to Napoleon. Fóscari’s head survived the hammering, however, and is on display inside.
Tourists no longer enter the building by the Porta della Carta, but instead are herded through a doorway on the lagoon side. Once through the ticket hall you emerge in the courtyard, opposite the other end of the passageway into the palazzo – the Arco Fóscari. The itinerary begins on the left side of the courtyard, where the finest of the capitals from the palazzo’s exterior arcade are displayed in the Museo dell’Opera.
Upstairs, the route takes you through the doge’s private apartments, then on to the Anticollegio, the room in which embassies had to wait before being admitted to the presence of the doge and his cabinet. This is one of the richest rooms in the Palazzo Ducale for paintings: four pictures by Tintoretto hang on the door walls, and facing the windows is Veronese’s Rape of Europa.
The Sala del Collegio and Sala del Maggior Consiglio
The cycle of paintings on the ceiling of the adjoining Sala del Collegio is also by Veronese, and he features strongly again in the most stupendous room in the building – the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. Veronese’s ceiling panel of The Apotheosis of Venice is suspended over the dais from which the doge oversaw the sessions of the city’s general assembly; the backdrop is Tintoretto’s immense Paradiso, painted towards the end of his life with the aid of his son, Domenico. At the opposite end there’s a curiosity: the frieze of portraits of the first 76 doges (the series continues in the Sala dello Scrutinio – through the door at the far end) is interrupted by a painted black veil, marking the place where Doge Marin Falier would have been honoured had he not been beheaded for conspiring against the state in 1355.
The Bridge of Sighs and the prisons
A couple of rooms later you descend to the underbelly of the Venetian state, crossing the Ponte dei Sospiri, or Bridge of Sighs, to the prisons. Before the construction of these cells in the early seventeenth century all prisoners were kept in the Piombi (the Leads), under the roof of the Palazzo Ducale, or in the Pozzi (the Wells) in the bottom two storeys; the new block was occupied mainly by petty criminals. The route finishes with a detour through the Pozzi, but if you want to see the Piombi, and the rooms in which the day-to-day administration of Venice took place, you have to go on one of the “secret” tours.