The Doge’s Palace was not only the residence of the ruler of Venice but also the seat of government. There are many things to see at the Doge’s Palace, but how do you know what to see when there? This guide will make sure you hit all the main spots without wandering around all day.
Brandon’s Pro Travel Tip: Bookmarking helpful articles is a great way not to forget some vital info that you pick up. If you are traveling to Venice bookmark this post so you won’t miss the top things to see! Also, check out our Venice tours– Venice is best seen through the eyes of passionate locals. For more great articles about Venice check out the following:
- St. Mark’s Basilica: Everything you need to know
- 10 hidden gems in Venice: The City’s best-kept secrets
- Doge’s Palace: Everything you need to know
- 15 Foods to try in Venice
Top 9 things to see when you are at the Doge’s Palace
The Palace has an extensive history, so let’s examine some of the main areas to see. We will also examine how they affected one of the most amazing republics of Italy throughout the centuries. The style on the outside is Gothic with beautiful and ornate columns and typically Gothic pointed arches.
9. Scala Dei Giganti
When entering the Doge’s Palace, you’ll find yourself in its courtyard where you’ll see the Scala dei Giganti. The staircase leads up to the staterooms which are on the first floor. Work started on the staircase after the fire of 1483 which destroyed parts of the Ducal Palace.
Historically this staircase is important due to the fact that for many centuries, the coronation ceremonies of newly elected Doge’s took place at the top of the staircase in the gallery.
At the top of the stairs, there are two statues. One of Poseidon, representing Venice’s coastal trade power. The second statue is a representation of Mars, symbolizing the political power of the trading empire. In between these two statues is the winged lion, the symbol of Venice’s Patron Saint, St. Mark.
Designed by the famous artist Jacopo Sansovino, they were put in place in 1565 and this marked the end of the renovation which had been going on for 80 years and also showed the new Renaissance style architecture.
8. Great Council Chamber
The Great Council Chamber inside the Doge’s Palace is one of the most amazing rooms you’ll see in Europe. Surrounded by astonishing pieces of art, this room is where the Senate would deliberate and come to agreements about financial matters and other public concerns, like the sentences for the prisoners.
The council was made up of all the male members of patrician Venetian families over 25 years old, regardless of their individual status, merits or wealth. While not a democracy as we know it today, this system which spanned over a 1,000 years created a very specific checks and balances system which didn’t allow any one person to get too much power, including the Doge himself.
Regarding the Doge, it was in this room where the first phase of electing a new one would take place. The process was long and intensive on purpose to discourage any kind of cheating to take place.
One of Doge’s Palace’s artworks you’ll be able to admire in this room is Tintoretto’s Paradise. This painting is one of the largest oil paintings on canvas in history. The painting represents heaven on earth. It is said that its purpose was to look over the council in order for them to make appropriate decisions.
7. Bridge Of Sighs
Another highlight of the Doge’s Palace is the Bridge of Sighs which connects the Palace to its prison. At the end of the 16th century, the Doge decided to house criminals in the next building over and not in the main building where even the Doge lived.
Antonio Contino built the bridge in the year 1600. It is made from white limestone and is extremely ornamental. While most bridges in Venice are not covered, this bridge was covered and even had windows inside.
The name, Bridge of Sighs, comes from the Romantic Period and speaks about the sound prisoners would make after being sentenced for their crimes in the palace and taken over the bridge where they would get one last glimpse of the outside world looking at the lagoon and San Giorgio through the very small windows placed there.
While the name was popular, it was finally immortalized when the Lord Byron wrote about it in his book of 1812, ” Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”. The famous quote is, “I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs; a palace and a prison on each hand.”
Whether the story of the sighs is true or not, it is definitely romantic. Being one of the most romantic cities in the world it is fitting as well that if you are with your loved one in a gondola under the bridge of sighs at sunset and the Bell Tower in St Marks toll, their love will last an eternity.
6. Chamber Of Torment
A dreaded place by the accused was the Chamber of Torment. A prisoner would be waiting in complete darkness before it was his turn to be questioned. He would hear painful screams of his fellow inmates, but these were actually fake screams by paid actors to raise the terror level more.
Here interrogations took place, where criminals were pulled by their arms with rope, while these were tied behind their back. A very painful position to be questioned in. This torture would continue until the prisoner would confess to the crime committed.
5. The Doge’s Apartments
The Doge has always resided in the palace itself. The rooms were always located between the present Golden Staircase and the apse of St. Marks’ Basilica also called the Ducal Chapel.
The entire area was destroyed in a fire in 1483 which allowed the rooms to be rebuilt in the Renaissance style. The decoration which you will see comes from this period and includes engraved wooden ceilings, huge marble chimneys, and delicately carved decoration with painting friezes and stuccoes.
Until the 17th century the rooms where the Doge resided were quite small and almost always less than what they had been used to in private life. This was done in a way to humble him and make him realize that his first priority was to the Republic of Venice and then about himself.
The incoming Doge would bring in his furniture and other furnishings from his private residence. Upon his death, these furnishing would be removed by his next of kin to allow the new incoming Doge to bring in his own personal belongings.
Today, the rooms that are actually visitable have been outfitted with technological panels and systems that allow a more dynamic use for exhibitions while highlighting their original decorations.
While the Doge’s Palace was the home of the Doge himself, it also functioned as a conglomerate of staterooms for all the leading men of the Republic to come together and discuss the ongoings and state affairs. The palace was also used as a courthouse and prison.
There were two kinds of classifications for the prisons- Pozzi and Piombi. The Pozzi, which means “wells” in Italian, was a place of detention for prisoners, and one of the worst to be in. As you can deduce from its name, these wet little cells were hardly ventilated and reeked, making them extremely miserable cells for prisoners.
In the mid 16th century they decided to add another set of cells that would be on the other side of the canal. To connect these would be the famous Bridge of Sighs. The cells here were called Piombi. They were created with the intention of creating better conditions for the prisoners with more light entering the cells and also more room overall. To that aim, only a few of the cells were actually done in this way, since many of them were just interconnecting or overlooking the inner courtyard.
These cells were reserved for people who committed political crimes or who had to serve short period sentences. The famous Casanova was imprisoned in both types of cells for a period of time and he confirms that the Piombi was definitely a better place to be in comparison with the Pozzi.
As the name implies, this collection of four rooms house various weapons used throughout the centuries. Back in the day, this is where they would have stored all the weapons that would be used by Venetian soldiers in times of war as well.
In room 1 you will find a beautiful set of armor that belonged to the famous mercenary Erasmo da Narni, whose nickname was il Gattamelata. In the late middle ages and throughout the Renaissance times various famous mercenaries, called Condottieri in Italian, were often saviours for various states as they could come in with their own army and destroy your enemies…for a hefty price of course.
While there are many suits of armor in this room, One curiosity sticks out as it is a miniature suit of armor found on the battlefield in Marignano in 1515. It would have belonged to either a child or a dwarf.
Overall you can find over 2,000 pieces in the exhibition including 15th and 16th-century suits of armor, along with swords, halberds, quivers, and crossbows. They also house armor and weapons of Turkish origin which were taken during the wars against the Turks.
2. Museo Dell’Opera
Over the ages the Doge’s Palace was constantly under renovation or rebuilding. This was due to various factors such as the many fires that broke out and destroyed the building or the need to increase the size as the republic grew.
Starting back in the middle ages, there was a sort of technical office that was in charge of the maintenance of the Palace. This office was called Opera. In the mid 19th century, the Palace was in such a state of disrepair that many wondered if it would survive or should just be destroyed.
In 1876 they began a restoration plan which would involve a huge overhaul of the building. Many pieces of artwork they found during this period was set aside and is now preserved in the Museum or Museo dell’ Opera. Over 42 of these capitals, which were in a bad state, were removed and replaced with copies. The originals have now been moved to the Museum.
The Medieval Palace would have been richly decorated with columns and capitals that told many stories and allegories which would have been better understood by people of the time. We could say that the stories depicted were almost like an epic poem depicting men, women, animals, plants, zodiac signs, myths, symbols, vices, and virtues. Remember that the literacy rate would have been reserved for the upper classes, so telling powerful stories through art was the best way for the general public to understand.
1. Golden Staircase
The Doge’s apartments as mentioned above only occupied one of the three floors of the palace. However, to reach them, you would have taken the magnificent Golden Staircase or Scala d’oro. The reason for this name is the ornately decorated stucco vault in gold that follows the staircase all the way to the top.
The architect of these stairs was none other than Jacopo Sansovino who also built the Scala dei Giganti ( see number 9 above). It took him four years to build and was decorated above by various artists such as Tiziano Aspetti, Alessandro Vittoria, Giovanni Battista Franco and Francesco Segala.
Jacopo Sansovino, who is actually from Florence, found much success in both Florence and Rome. Supposedly he had submitted a design for the facade of San Lorenzo in Florence, but it was rejected by Michelangelo who was in charge of the overall scheme. Sansovino wrote a bitter letter of protest to Michelangelo but to no avail.
He moved to Venice in 1529 from Rome as the famous sack of Rome was starting there. In Venice he was named chief architect to the procurators of San Marco, This was a huge honor and allowed him to have a say in pretty much all projects going on in the city. He died in Venice and is actually buried in St Mark’s Basilica.