Friday, 24 December 2010

The Doge's Palace and its Treasures

Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1526), The Lion of St Mark
Palazzo Ducale, Venice
No place in Venice can boast such a marvelous heritage as the Doge’s Palace, the political heart of the Venetian Republic for centuries. A masterpiece of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, it was built on the foundations of fortified buildings dating back to the origins of the city (V-VI century AD). The present area of San Marco was actually chosen as one of the three main strategic points of the Byzantine empire. It underwent many transformations in the course of the centuries and performed at least four fundamental functions: it was the seat of the Venetian government, the Palace of Justice, the Doge’s Residence and the Prison. Thus it was a centralised political and administrative complex intended to be not simply a functional building but also and especially the expression of the richness and supremacy of the city.

The Doge's Palace: official video by Venice Civic Museums (apologies for the wholly inappropriate music):

The first part of the Palace to be completed in its present form was the south wing, which faces the Lagoon. This wing, initially separate from the other two buildings, was conceived in the 1340s. On the first floor it contains one enormous room, one of the largest ever built in Europe: the Great Council Hall. With its impressive size (the room is 53m long, 25m wide and 14m high) the Great Council Hall is probably one of best examples of the engineering skills of the Venetians.

The Great Council was the main city assembly and was composed of all Venetian noblemen from 25 years upwards, so its membership could be up to two thousand! During these meetings the patrician class proposed and discussed new laws and appointed the members of all the other offices of State. The present decoration of the Great Council Hall is an astonishing collection of paintings which celebrate the greatness of Venetian history, the virtues of its government and its divine protection. Among the many Veroneses, Bassanos and Tintorettos, one is struck by what is possibly one of the largest oil paintings on canvas ever realised: the Paradise by Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto. In the centre at the top can be seen Christ crowning the Virgin, while more than 500 angels, saints, evangelists, prophets and common people are present all around for the occasion. The picture is full of Tintoretto’s distinctive mystical light.
Jacopo Tintoretto and Workshop, Paradise
Palazzo Ducale, Venice
The second part of the Doge’s Palace to be built, almost a century after the first, is the wing facing the Piazzetta, opposite the Biblioteca Marciana. Erected as a Palace of Justice under Doge Francesco Foscari, it is not always opened to the public. Although it was constructed in the first half of the XV century, in order to guarantee uniformity it was built in the Gothic style. Its façade, like the one overlooking the lagoon, is decorated with multi-coloured-brick lozenges in the upper part and with loggias down below. The wonderful Gothic loggias are decorated in an elegant quatrefoil pattern. The Paper Doorway, between the Palace of Justice and the Basilica, was one of the two main entrances of the building. A masterpiece by Bartolomeo Bon, it is embellished with several statues: note the one of Doge Francesco Foscari kneeling before the Lion of St Mark. This is a copy dating from the XIX century, since the original sculptures were destroyed at the end of the XVIII century, when the city was invaded by Napoleon.

Last but not least, the Renaissance wing houses the Doge’s Apartments and some important political rooms. As regards the former, one should bear in mind that the Doge’s Palace was not a monarchical residence, but rather a civic structure intended for the government of the city. The Doge, from at least the year 1000, had no great power and was obliged to live in the same building as the government.

Paolo Veronese (1528-1588), The Rape of Europa
Palazzo Ducale, Venice

The Doge, once elected (remember Venice was a Republic), had to move to these apartments with the rest of his family and had to remain there until he died. With the unique role of representing the State, the Doge had practically no private life. The rooms of his apartments, some in Baroque style and others in Rococo, are a magnificent testament of the richness of the Republic. On the third floor, visitors can admire some of the halls where the Collegio, the Senate and the Council of Ten met. None of the paintings here has a merely decorative function, each single element was conceived as part of an intricate political allegory aiming at the glorification of the city. The ceiling of the Room of the Collegio, for instance, is a priceless work by Paolo Veronese describing the features of the good government of Venice.

In the Renaissance wing the two ceremonial staircases cannot be missed. The first one is the so called Giants’ Stairway in the courtyard, at the top of which two enormous statues stand for the security of the Palace: Mars and Neptune, wonderful works by Jacopo Sansovino. These two symbols stand for the Stato da Terra and Stato da Mar, the power that Venice had on land and on sea. The second staircase has a spectacular gilded, stuccoed and frescoed vault and was therefore named the Golden Staircase. Here also one finds a large number of allegories and symbols praising the richness, the magnificence and the uniqueness of Venice.
Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770), Neptune offering gifts to Venice
Palazzo Ducale, Venice
At the end of the tour, visitors pass across the famous Bridge of Sighs and into the New Prisons. The old prisons, called the Leads, which are still visible in the Doge’s Palace, were hellish, and the insufferable conditions led to the death of many prisoners. This is why in the 1580s new prisons were opened, in another building adjacent to the Doge’s Palace but seperated from it by a canal. Very modern at that time, the New Prisons still conserve some original carvings and graffiti left by the prisoners.

In conclusion the Doge’s Palace, not by chance the most visited museum in the city, is probably one of the most representative monuments in Venice. Full of charm, it contains not only great masterpieces but also evidence of the greatness of Venetian history.

Doge's Palace official website
Web Gallery of Art: Tintoretto paintings in the Doge's Palace
Web Gallery of Art: Veronese paintings in the Doge's Palace
Doge's Palace: 15 high quality fullscreen interactive panoramas (marvellous! highly recommended!)

'I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord' - (from Psalm 118) - note left by Giacomo Casanova for his captors on his escape from the Leads.

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