By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
One of the most popular attractions in Venice and dominating the most popular square, San Marco, the Doge Palace is unbelievably crowded with tourists during the day who can stand on line for a long time and then struggle inside for views of the fantastic art. But on my recent trip, I discovered that the Doge Palace and three other museums stay open on Fridays and Saturdays until 11 pm (last entrance at 10 pm) and the ticket is valid at all four of the museums and valid for three months. The experience of visiting the Doge Palace at night is incomparable.
I waltz in at 7:30 pm without waiting at all and find myself in these rooms – grand doesn’t begin to describe them – by myself or with at most a handful of other people. All of us are breathless. No one speaks. The silence is thrilling.
The art work – monumental pieces by titans of the Renaissance – fill the massive walls and the entire ceiling. One room is grander and bigger and more gilded than the next, and at this hour, at this moment, it feels like all of this is for me and me alone.
Besides the extraordinary magnificence of the artwork throughout the Doge Palace, I realize from the notes I read afterward that the palace harbors a fascinating history of government of this early republic, which for two centuries dominated trade between Europe and Asia. Venice’s powerful influence extended from the city at the western edge of the old Byzantine Empire, to the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
I go through the rooms taking in the visual sights, overwhelmed, really by the art – the majestic paintings in gilded frames that completely cover the walls and ceiling, the architectural details. The rooms are fairly dark and I don’t take the time or struggle to read the notes that are provided. Later, when I review the notes provided, I better appreciate the historical significance, where the art and the architecture were representations of the structure of government and the rulers, comparable to the Capitol Building, Supreme Court and White House, combined, though hundreds of years older.
For two centuries, the Venetian Republic dominated trade between Europe and Asia, its influence extending from the city at the western edge of the Byzantine Empire to the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea.
The palace dates back to before the 10th century but, after a fire, was rebuilt by Doge Sebastiano Ziani (1172-1178), a great reformer who also changed the layout of St. Mark’s Square. The palace had to be expanded several times “to accommodate political changes and the increase in number of people who had the right to participate in the legislative assembly meetings” (an intriguing phrase). The Chamber of the Great Council (just one room in this palace) accommodated 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen. The thought is mind-boggling.
After another huge fire in 1577 destroyed many of the masterpieces, reconstruction was undertaken immediately to restore it to its original appearance, which was completed by 1579-80.
Until then, the Doge’s Palace housed not only the Doge’s apartments, the seat of the government and the city’s courtrooms, but also a jail. It was only in the second half of the 16th century that Antonio da Ponte ordered the construction of new prisons, built by Antonio Contin around 1600, which were linked to the Doge’s Palace by the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1614. Relocating the prisons left the old space on the ground floor of the palace free, which led to the creation of the courtyard.
The famous Bridge of Sighs dates from the Romantic period, its name supposedly referring 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 filigree openings.
Crossing over the Bridge of Sighs is one of the most thrilling aspects of the visit, especially at night, with the golden lights reflected on blue-black water. You peer through the openings, just as these prisoners would have. It is somewhat surreal to look down at the bridge from which you saw the Bridge of Sighs hours before, and imagine what prisoners must have thought as they had their last glimpse of that glorious scene. And then going into the prison itself, surreal considering it was mere steps away from the grandeur of the palace.
But there is still so much more to see – it seems that the palace just goes on and on.
The Chamber of the Great Council, restructured in the 14th century, was decorated with a fresco by Guariento and later with works by the most famous artists of the period, including Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Alvise Vivarini, Carpaccio, Bellini, Pordenone and Titian. At 53 meters long and 25 meters wide, this is not only the largest and most majestic chamber in the Doge’s Palace, but also one of the largest rooms in Europe.
The Great Council was the most important political body in the Republic. An ancient institution, the Council was made up of all the male members over 25 years old of patrician Venetian families, irrespective of their individual status, merits or wealth. “This was why, in spite of the restrictions in its powers that the Senate introduced over the centuries, the Great Council continued to be seen as bastion of republican equality. The Council had the right to call to account all the other authorities and bodies of the State when it seemed that their powers were getting excessive and needed to be trimmed. The 1,200 to 2,000 noblemen who sat in the Council always considered themselves guardians of the laws that were the basis of all the other authorities within the State.”
This room was also where the first steps in the election of a new Doge would take place. These voting procedures were extremely long and complex in order to frustrate any attempts of cheating. Every Sunday, when the bells of St. Mark’s rang, the Council members would gather in the hall with the Doge presiding at the center of the podium and his counselors occupying double rows of seats that ran the entire length of the room.
The walls are decorated with works by Paolo Caliari (known as Paolo Veronese), Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto, and Palma il Giovane. depicting Venetian history, particularly the city’s relations with the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire; the ceiling is decorated with the Virtues and examples of Venetian heroism, with an allegorical glorification of the Republic in the center. Facing each other in groups of six, the 12 wall paintings depict acts of valor or scenes of war that had occurred during the city’s history. A frieze with portraits of the first 76 doges (the portraits of the others are in the Sala dello Scrutinio) runs just under the ceiling. Though commissioned from Jacopo Tintoretto, most of these paintings are the work of his son, Domenico. Each Doge holds a scroll bearing a reference to his most important achievements, while Doge Marin Faliero, who attempted a coup d’état in 1355, is represented simply by a black cloth – a traitor to the Republic, he was not only condemned to death but also to damnatio memoriae, the total eradication of his memory and name.
Along the wall behind the Doge’s throne is one of the longest canvas paintings in the world, the Paradiso, which Jacopo Tintoretto and workshop produced between 1588 and 1592 to replace the Guariento fresco that had been damaged in the fire.
The Council Chamber was where two separate and independent organs of power, the Savi and the Signoria, would meet. The Savi was divided into three sections concerned with foreign policy, mainland Italy and maritime issues. The Signoria was made up of the three Heads of the Councils of Forty and members of the Minor Council, composed of the Doge and six councilors, one for each district of the city of Venice. The Council was organized and coordinated the work of the Senate, reading dispatches from ambassadors and city governors, receiving foreign delegations and promoting other political and legislative activity.
The Sala dei Pregadi housed the Senate, one of the oldest public institutions in Venice. Established in the 13th century, it evolved over time until by the 16th century it was the body mainly responsible for overseeing political and financial affairs in manufacturing, trade and foreign policy. In effect, it served as a sub-committee of the Great Council and its members were generally drawn from the wealthiest Venetian families.
The Chamber of the Council of Ten is named for the council that was set up after a conspiracy in 1310, when Bajamonte Tiepolo and other noblemen tried to overthrow the government. “Initially meant as a provisional body to try those conspirators, the Council of Ten is one of many examples of Venetian institutions that were intended to be temporary but which became permanent.” Its authority covered all sectors of public life, a power that gave rise to its reputation as a ruthless, all-seeing tribunal at the service of the ruling oligarchy, a court whose sentences were handed down rapidly after secret hearings. The assembly was made up of ten members chosen from the Senate and elected by the Great Council. These ten sat with the Doge and his six counselors, which accounts for the 17 semicircular outlines that you can still see in the chamber.
The Compass Room was used for the administration of justice. It was named for the large wooden compass with a statue of Justice, that stands in one corner and hides the entrance to the rooms of the three Heads of the Council of Ten and the State Inquisitors. Those summoned by these powerful magistrates waited here to be called; the magnificent decor was intended to reinforce the solemnity of the Republic’s legal machinery.
So much of the exquisite decoration we see, which dates from the 16th century, was commissioned from Veronese. Completed in 1554, the works he produced are all intended to exalt the “good government” of the Venetian Republic; the central panel, with St. Mark descending to crown the three Theological Virtues, is a copy of the original, now in the Louvre.
The Chamber of Censors was an office which was established in 1517 to address “the cultural and political upheavals that are associated with Humanism.” The State Censors “were more like moral consultants than judges, with their main task being the repression of electoral fraud and the protection of the State’s public institutions.” The walls display Domenico Tintoretto’s portraits of these magistrates.
The Chamber of the State Advocacies: This State Advocacy department dates from the 12th century, when Venice was organized as a commune. The three members, the Avogadori, safeguarded the principle of legality, making sure that laws were applied correctly. Though they never enjoyed the status and power of the Doge and the Council of Ten, the Avogadori remained one of the most prestigious authorities in Venice right up to the fall of the Republic. They were also responsible for preserving the integrity of the city’s patrician class, verifying the legitimacy of marriages and births inscribed in the Golden Book.
The “Scrigno” Room. The Venetian nobility as a caste came into existence because of the “closure” of admissions to the Great Council in 1297; but it was only in the 16th century that formal restrictions that protected the status of that aristocracy were introduced: marriages between nobles and commoners were forbidden so greater controls were set up to check the validity of aristocratic titles. Golden and Silver books registered all those families that not only had the requisites of “civilization” and “honor”, but could also show that they were of ancient Venetian origin. The Golden and Silver Books were kept in a chest inside a cupboard that also contained all the documents proving the legitimacy of claims. The 18th century cupboard we see today extends around three sides of a wall niche; lacquered in white with gilded decorations.
The Armoury houses an important historical collection of weapons and armaments. The core of the collection is 14th century, dating from the time when the Armoury was under the control of the Council of Ten and stocked with weapons that would be readily available for the Palace’s guards. The collection was partially dispersed after the fall of the Republic, but still contains some 2000 exhibits, including 15th and 16th century suits of armor, swords, halberds, quivers and crossbows. Many are inscribed or painted monogram CX – for “Council of Ten” – which also appears on the door jambs, evidence of the Council’s might. The Turkish implements – weapons, standards and ships’ lanterns – that are displayed were taken from the enemy during battle. The collection also displays 16th and 17th century firearms; implements of torture; a chastity belt; and a series of small but lethal weapons that were prohibited by law.
The Doge’s Palace was the heart of the political life and public administration of the Venetian Republic, so after the fall of the Republic in 1797, its role inevitably changed. Venice first fell under French rule, then Austrian, and ultimately, in 1866, became part of a united Italy.
Up until the end of the 19th century, the Palazzo Ducale was occupied by various administrative offices and housed important cultural institutions such as the Biblioteca Marciana (from 1811 to 1904). But by then, the structure was showing signs of decay. The Italian government set aside sizeable sums for an extensive restoration. Public offices were relocated with the exception of the State Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments, which is still housed in the building (now called Superintendence of the Environmental and Architectural Heritage of Venice and its Lagoon). In 1923, the Italian state which owns the building, appointed the City Council to manage it as a public museum. In 1996, the Doge’s Palace became part of the Civic Museums of Venice network.
ST. MARK’S SQUARE MUSEUMS TICKET A single ticket valid for the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary of Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. This ticket is valid for 3 months and grants one single admission to the Doge’s Palace and the combined itinerary. (20E for regular ticket; 13 E for children 6-14, students 15-25, seniors over 65 and holders of International Student Identity Card) (http://palazzoducale.visitmuve.it/en/the-museum/doges-palace/the-palace/)
MUSEUM PASS The Museum Pass the cumulative ticket for the permanent collection of the Musei Civici of Venice currently open and for those connected (Palazzo Fortuny and Clock Tower not included). This ticket is valid for 6 months and grants one single admission to each museum. The Museum Pass grants entrance to: The St Mark’s Square museums : – Doge’s Palace – combined itinerary of Museo Correr, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, plus other civic museums of Venice: Ca’ Rezzonico – Museum of 18th-Century Venice; Museum of Palazzo Mocenigo; Carlo Goldoni’s House; Ca’ Pesaro, International Gallery of Modern Art + Oriental Art Museum; Glass Museum – Murano; Lace Museum – Burano; Natural History Museum. (24E or 18 E), www.visitmuve.it.
I wander back through the narrow alleys of the old city, stopping to listen to a musician fill a plaza with his music, to the tram that takes me back to the Hotel Alexander in Mestre. Tomorrow, Eric and I will start our eight-day self-guided bike tour that will take us about 300 miles to Trieste, Slovenia and Croatia.
(We booked our 8-day self-guided “Venice-Trieste-Istria” bike tour through BikeTours.com, a broker which has an excellent catalog of well-priced guided and self-guided bike and bike/boat trips, mostly in Europe, and has very attentive counselors. Biketours.com, 1222 Tremont Street , Chattanooga, TN 37405, 423-756-8907, 877-462-2423, www.biketours.com,[email protected]).
See also: Following Whim and Whimsy in Venice
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