The Doge’s Palace in Venice, also known as Palazzo Ducale, is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks. It’s witnessed centuries of history, and can trace its lineage back to the very foundation of Venice. From the 9th century AD, the region’s most important political decisions were made here. It boasts the famous Bridge of Sighs, priceless works of art, and historical stories that could rival anything found in Game of Thrones. To learn more about this legendary palace, recently voted ‘Best Landmark’ as part of the 2021 Remarkable Venue Awards, we spoke to Elena Marchetti – the curator of the Doge’s Palace in Venice.
Thank you for talking to us! Please tell us a bit more about what you do for the Doge’s Palace.
I am the curator of the Doge’s Palace in Venice. The Palazzo Ducale is part of the network of the City Museums, which includes 11 of the greatest museums of the city of Venice: the Correr Museum, Ca’ Rezzonico, Ca’ Pesaro, and the Glass Museum are only a few among them. Altogether they are a real shrine that reveals the beauty and the incredible history of Venice and its art.
What does your role involve on a day-to-day basis?
In Italian the name for curator is conservatore – that means that your first and main job is to look after the museum and its collections from different points of view. The preservation, knowledge, the coordination of exhibitions, and making sure that the Palace’s treasures are displayed clearly are my main responsibilities.
The conservatore works with the director in developing scientific projects that contribute to enhancing and helping the comprehension of the extraordinary cultural heritage that we preserve in the museum. This means many different tasks on a day-to-day basis. Contrary to the way it might be perceived from the outside, it is far from being a quiet, monotonous and boring profession. It is rather dynamic and very exciting!
What do you love most about your role?
First of all, I love to be in close contact with the works of art. This is what makes me happiest. I am also very passionate about the study and research activity that lies behind any museum initiative, from an exhibition to an installation. Moreover, I find all the interpretive parts of the job very exciting, when you try to find connections between artists, historical events, works of art and eventually you are able to ‘enter’ the artwork and hear all the stories it has to tell.
One aspect I am very enthusiastic about is the installation of a new exhibition – when after a long preparation period, you finally see the outcome of the project. It is like a magic moment, when everything becomes real and the works start to create a dialogue between themselves.
The history of the Doge’s Palace in Venice
Why was the Palazzo Ducale built and who initially lived there?
The first Palace was not as we see it today. It was built in the 9th century by the Doge Agnello Partecipazio (810-827), the first Doge who moved from Malamocco towards the sea, to the area which would later become the Venice we know today. For almost a thousand years, until 1797, this remained the centre of the government of the glorious Republic of Venice. 110 Doges ruled here, adding modifications and embellishments to the Palace over the centuries.
Very little is known about the Palace’s first appearance. Chronicles and archival records don’t provide sufficient material for a reconstruction, but we do know that it looked like a castle with high defensive walls and four towers. The most important thing about the first Doge’s Palace is its position; a strategic area for control over the city and the sea, at the heart of the new city which then developed around it.
It should be remembered that in 828, the remains of the Evangelist St. Mark were brought to Venice from Alexandria. From this event onwards, the Basilica dedicated to St. Mark took its place right next to the Doge’s Palace. In this way, you could say that the whole city of Venice was born alongside the Doge’s Palace.
The present form of the Doge’s Palace in Venice is more than 600 years old! There must be some fascinating stories from its history – do you have any favourites?
Yes indeed, many stories took place among these walls. When I get in the museum very early in the morning, and the Palace is empty, I can feel the breath of history that keeps it alive.
A famous story took place in 1355, and is attested to by a painting in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. In the upper frieze, where the Doges are represented, you can see one portrait that has been covered with a black cloth. The missing Doge is Marino Faliero, who was beheaded in 1355 for having attempted a conspiracy against the State. The Republic didn’t accept any treason and even a Doge could be condemned to death. The punishment went beyond death, however: the Republic decreed a damnatio memoriae over his image, meaning the total annihilation of his memory.
Another thrilling story lies behind the largest painting of the museum, and one of the largest in the world. This is Paradise by Jacopo Tintoretto, found in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. Its origin can be traced back to 1577, when a devastating fire ravaged the Palace. The Sala del Maggior Consiglio and the Sala dello Scrutinio were destroyed, along with all their lavishly decorated walls and ceilings. Memories of two centuries’ worth of glory were erased.
Yet from within the tragedy, the Republic found a new reason to rise again, even more magnificent than before. A new set of important commissions were awarded, the most prestigious of all being the one for the painting in the most prominent position, above the seat of the Doge. This new painting was meant to replace the previous one – a huge fresco by Guariento di Arpo – which was damaged by fire.
According to tradition, a competition involving the best painters was called in order to assign the painting, which would have been the largest in the world at that time. Although the exact sequence of events is not completely clear, we know that several proposals were received: Paolo Veronese, Palma il Giovane, Francesco Bassano, Federico Zuccaro and Jacopo Tintoretto all sent their sketches.
Actually, the painting we see now is not the project that was initially chosen: Paolo Veronese and Francesco Bassano were elected winners at first, but then Veronese died in 1588 without having even started work on the gigantic canvas. Then came the moment for Jacopo Tintoretto, the ever-courageous painter, who at 70 years old didn’t fear an ambitious challenge and accepted the demanding commission.
From 1588 to 1592, with the help of his son Domenico and other assistants, he painted a canvas of more than 150 square meters wide representing the glory of the blessed in Paradise. The painting depicts the kingdom of heaven as a very crowded and dynamic assembly. As Mark Twain observed when he saw the painting in the 19th century: “there is not a reposeful figure in the entire 10,000. Everybody is hard at it and full of energy as if this was the last Saturday Night. Some are diving, with clasped hands, others swimming through the cloud-shoals, some frog-fashion […], every soul in the picture must be in a profuse perspiration – a most tremendous state of activity”.
We read that the famous Casanova was imprisoned in the palace in Venice. Please tell us more!
Yes, Giacomo Casanova was one of the most illustrious ‘guests’ of the prisons of the Doge’s Palace. Even more famous than his conviction is his escape from its maximum-security jail. The facts are as follows: on July 26, 1755, the Inquisitori di Stato – an authority of the Venetian justice – arrested him. They brought him to the so-called ‘Piombi’, the jails located right under the lead roof of the Palace. The Piombi took their name after their cladding material (piombo meaning lead), that made them extremely hot in summer and freezing during winter.
Giacomo was first assigned to a cell facing the courtyard, where he spent his first nine months of conviction, a victim to the agony and anguish of not knowing the reason why he had been imprisoned. Following the standard procedure of the Inquisitori, he would never be allowed to know his criminal charge or what he was even accused of.
After several months, Giacomo managed to find an iron chain with which he, patiently, bored a hole through the floor. Just when he was about to finish it, however, he was moved to another cell! There, he befriended another prisoner, who planned to help him escape by piercing a hole in the ceilings of both his and Casanova’s cell. On the night of October 31, 1756 they climbed the roof of the Palace and they walked along the ledge until they found an open window, which allowed them to enter back into the Palace, through the room of the Cancelleria Superiore.
After having forced the door open, they found themselves in the Atrio Quadrato. Then they rushed down the Scala d’Oro, quickly descended down the Scala dei Giganti and then they walked away under the Arco Foscari, leaving the Palace through the Porta della Carta, finally free. This gallant gentleman’s memorable escape proved him to be a resourceful person and, three decades later, he was also proven to be a great writer. Casanova himself, in fact, relates these events in his own memoirs, an incredible piece of thrilling and engaging literature, which makes him the first and principal author of the fame of his escape.
Facts about the Doge’s Palace
What style of architecture is the Palazzo Ducale and what are some of its most interesting features?
The Doge’s Palace in Venice showcases many styles of architecture which follow the evolution of its construction throughout its long history. You can appreciate most of them when you stand in the centre of the inner courtyard of the Palace. From there, if you look at the South façade towards St. Mark’s Basin, you will see the Gothic wing, the fundamental features of which were reflected also in the West façade a century later. To the side canal, you will see the Renaissance wing, the design of which was started by Antonio Rizzo and eventually completed by Jacopo Sansovino. Towards St. Mark’s Basilica, you can see the last significant intervention in the architectural aspect of the Palace: the façade of the clock designed by architect Bartolomeo Manopola in 1615.
Each of these styles has its own fascinating features, like the highly refined, geometric decoration in white and porphyry stones of the Renaissance front. The main feature of the Palace can be perceived from the outside, where the solemn, magnificent Venetian Gothic architecture triumphs and creates one of the most unforgettable images in the world. Most of its fascination is derived from its absolute singularity, and its perfect fusion with the environment. John Ruskin considered the Doge’s Palace “a model of all perfection” and wrote that “it would be impossible, I believe, to invent a more magnificent arrangement of all that is in building most dignified and most fair.”
The Gothic façades of the Doge’s Palace combine innovative structure and a great sensibility in terms of the effects of light, to an extremely high degree. The structure is a paradox (like all Venice is): with the massive full wall at the top and the light loggias at the bottom, the Palace appears to be built upside down, contradicting all laws of balance. While the two levels of loggias allow the light to enter the Palace and play with the arcades, the wall is composed of a pattern of pink and white stones that perfectly reflects the sparkling light from the water.
Do you have a favourite fact about the Palace, and if so, what is it?
On March 5, 1603, a delegation from Persia arrived at the Doge’s Palace. They carried trunks loaded with gifts of unprecedented wealth, including precious fabrics, a mantle woven with gold, a silk carpet woven in gold, one velvet cloth decorated with the Annunciation and another with the Virgin and Child produced by Armenian artisans in the royal workshops, shields and weapons, even relics.
This event is represented in a painting by Gabriele Caliari, the son of Paolo Veronese, which can be admired in the Sala delle Quattro Porte. This was the hall where the foreign ambassadors usually waited to be received in the Sala del Collegio, and for this reason it was enriched by large canvases that recalled important state visits, like this one.
In the foreground of the painting, two young Persians are reaching into a coffer to extract a very precious white brocade silk fabric, embroidered with gold threads and large spirals of racemes shaped like hearts. At the time there was no cloth in the world that was more precious than Persian silk.
In the background, in an elevated position, sits the Doge Marino Grimani, wearing a golden ceremonial dress. On either side of the throne sit two Persian dignitaries and towards the right we can see Fethi Bey, the ambassador of Shah Abbas the Great. The man dressed in black holding a manuscript is the dragoman Iason de Nores, who is reading aloud a letter from the Shah of Persia to the Doge. The letter is simultaneously translated to Fethi Bey by another character.
This story, and its representation, are very important to explain how diplomacy worked in Venice. The Serenissima excelled in the art of diplomacy. The halls of the Palazzo Ducale were incessantly animated by guests and embassies coming from all over the world. Exchanging gifts was a fundamental part of the sophisticated and difficult art of politics. The Doge could not keep any gifts for himself; on the contrary, he was obliged to register all the gifts, which remained at the disposal of the Republic. This painting by Gabrielle Caliari is a splendid testimony of this event and a glimpse into the worldwide importance of the Doge’s Palace in Venice at the time of the Serenissima.
What to see at the Doge’s Palace
Tell us a bit more about the inside of Palazzo Ducale. What artworks can people find inside?
The inside of the Palace showcases an immense number of paintings, for the most part dating to the second half of the sixteenth century. Entering the Doge’s Palace is a mesmerizing experience. The visitor will walk through huge rooms, with gigantic canvases which fill the walls as well as the ceilings, framed in carved gilded friezes – it’s completely immersive. Among the artists represented, you’ll find Titian, Paolo Veronese, Jacopo Tintoretto, Carpaccio, Giovanni Bellini, Gianbattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo, Jacopo Bassano, Federico Zuccaro, Jacopo Palma il Giovane, and more. Almost all the paintings that one can see at the Doge’s Palace were commissioned to celebrate the Venetian Republic, and were specifically meant for one special room within the Palace.
There are not only paintings inside the Palace, but also sculptures of the finest degree: the nine statues that once adorned the great window over the Porta del Frumento, on the main façade, created by Pierpaolo and Jacobello Dalle Masegne, are now kept in the Museo dell’Opera, together with the original Trecento capitals of the medieval loggias and ground floor arcades. A Madonna with Child by Jacopo Sansovino and collaborators can be seen in the Chiesetta del Doge; some magnificent chimney pieces by the Lombardo family can be admired in the Apartments of the Doge; and three monumental Renaissance statues by Antonio Rizzo are in the Sala dello Scrutinio.
A visit to the Doge’s Palace is a moment of continuous awe that allows you to understand the power and glory of the Venetian Republic through the splendor of its art.
What is your favourite part of the Doge’s Palace?
My favorite part of the Palace, if I had to pick one, is the Sala dell’Anticollegio. This room was originally an antechamber and for this reason has a more intimate feel than the huge institutional rooms. This rather small room showcases 6 masterpieces of the Venetian Cinquecento: the four Allegories by Jacopo Tintoretto, the Rape of Europa by Paolo Veronese, and the Return of Jacob by Jacopo Bassano. Here, three of the most outstanding painters of their time are present with some of their finest paintings.
At first sight you can appreciate their strengths, their peculiarities, their magic. Tintoretto interprets the values of the Venetian Republic through a dialogue of the divinities intertwined, freeing a new energy from their bodies; Veronese tells the mythological story of Europa with his unequalled decorative harmony; Bassano sets the biblical episode in a peasant environment, full of realism and casting a loving gaze over everyday life.
If you had to create a highlights reel of the Palace for a first-time visitor, what would you feature?
My highlights reel would show some views of the Palace architecture and the play of light that it creates. This would include the loggias that connect the internal and external parts of the Palace, and the window of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio over St. Mark’s Basin. I’d also include the narrow balcony of the Arco Foscari that looks toward the Scala dei Giganti, and a view from the inside of the Bridge of Sighs over the lagoon.
Tips for visiting the Doge’s Palace
What do you consider the hidden gems at the Doge’s Palace? Which parts do you wish people would stop and appreciate more?
The Doge’s Palace is overwhelming and it can be difficult even to distinguish single works of art on a first visit. There are indeed some pieces that are really outstanding and that I would recommend not to miss.
Just one example: in the Sala dello Scrutinio, you can see three stunning masterpieces of Early Venetian Renaissance sculpture by Antonio Rizzo (c.1430-40-c.1499). Adam, Eve and the Warrior (Mars) are among some of the most important 15th-century sculptures in Italy. The statues were originally made to stand out in the open, in the shell-shaped niches of the Foscari Arch, in front of the Giants’ Staircase. The staircase was actually designed by the same artist, who also happened to be an architect. In the statues’ place now, there are bronze copies.
The marble originals have recently been restored and installed in the Sala dello Scrutinio. The special restoration project started in 2015 and ended in 2019, and it employed a laser cleaning technique which revealed the Carrara marble surface of the statues. The exceptional results of this restoration (carried out thanks to the generosity of Venetian Heritage) and the uniqueness of these three sculptures make them a must-see of the Doge’s Palace.
If you ask me about hidden gems, I immediately think about one precise work of art that not all visitors can see. Above the door of the Doge’s private staircase that connected his apartments to his chapel, there is an extraordinary fresco by Titian featuring Saint Christopher. This was painted by the great Venetian artist for the Doge Andrea Gritti, the most eminent doge of 16th-century Venice. According to tradition, Saint Christopher carried Jesus as a child on his shoulder through a river. Titian interprets the sacred legend and shows the saint crossing the lagoon of Venice, which can easily be recognised from the silhouette of St. Mark’s bell tower on the left on the horizon.
The imposing muscular mass of the giant saint, the vividness of the colours, and the lively interaction between the child and the man make this one of the true masterpieces by Titian. The painter held the position of official painter of the Republic, but unfortunately several of his works for the Palace were destroyed during fires. This fresco has survived, and remains the most important existing work that Titian executed for the Doge’s Palace – albeit a slightly lesser-known one. This hidden gem is included in the “Secret Itineraries” tour, which is a special tour that can be booked prior to your visit and where a guide leads you through the Palace to discover some fascinating hidden spots.
Do you have any insider tips for first-time visitors?
A first-time visitor has to make sure to see the highlights of the Palace, like the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, the Bridge of Sighs, the Giants’ Staircase, and the Sala del Collegio. In this hall, I’d recommend paying close attention to the ceiling; one of the most splendid and precious of the Palace, where an incredible ensemble of paintings by Veronese is displayed inside sumptuous carved and gilded wooden frames.
On your way out, don’t miss the statue of the so-called Todaro – Saint Theodore in the Venetian dialect. It’s a statue of a saint slaying a dragon, and you’ll find it near the end of your visit, under the arcades of the Cortiletto dei Senatori, right after the cafeteria and before taking the hallway of the Arco Foscari and eventually exiting the Palace through the Porta della Carta. If you carefully observe this statue, it might remind you of something. This image is reproduced in the most famous view of Venice: the perspective over the Piazzetta with the two columns that stand as a gate to the sea for all travelers. On these two popular columns stand the statues of Saint Mark (the winged lion) and of Saint Theodore, with the dragon at his feet. Not everybody knows that the statue in the Piazzetta is a copy: if you want to see the original, you have to come to the Doge’s Palace!