One of the most remarkable buildings of Venice, the
Doge’s Palace is situated in the Piazzetta between San Marco and the Grand
Doge’s Palace -
Architecture and Sculpture
The Doge’s Palace was rebuilt and
remodeled repeatedly during its history, as is reflected in its mixture of Byzantine, Gothic
and Renaissance features. The present building, constructed largely in the 14th and 15th
centuries, replaced a 9th-century fortified castle on the same site.
The new structure was to serve both as the official residence of
the doge and as the seat of government, a dual purpose that influenced every aspect of the
building, including the style and iconography of its decoration.
In a city the very existence of which depended on the balance of
commercial and diplomatic ties with both the Near East and Western Europe, the palace was
designed to serve both practical and diplomatic purposes, by flattering and overwhelming its
visitors and at the same time instructing them on the unique qualities of the city they were
The unknown architects who began the reconstruction of the
building designed it as a replica of a Byzantine palace, in Venice in
order to impress visitors from Constantinople.
The Byzantine source of the design partly explains the strangely
top-heavy structure, with a loggia and delicately traceried gallery appearing to support the
solid walls of the upper storeys.
The main façade of the Doge’s
Palace facing the Grand Canal (begun in1340) has an arcade composed of 36 short,
thick columns, above which 71 columns form a galler.
The shapes of the arcade and gallery arches, as well as the
tracery that originally decorated the windows, show the architects’ attempt to
combine Gothic elements with the eastern design.
The wall above, covered with a diaper pattern of white Istrian
stone and rose-coloured Verona marble, adds to the colourful exoticism of the building, as does
the delicate crenellation that crowns this façade.
Although constructed as late as the 15th century, the adjoining
wing facing the Piazzetta was designed in a similar style, while the façade facing the Rio di
Palazzo, begun in 1484 by Antonio Rizzo and completed around 1510 by Pietro Lombardo, is an
odd, piecemeal structure, marked by an irregular fenestration and an uneven cornice. The
diamond-patterned stonework at basement level is unusual in Venice and the idea was probably
imported from the mainland, reflecting the city’s increasing involvement with the rest of Italy
at that time.
The sculptural decoration of the two principal façades is
medieval in its encyclopedic character. Although some of the capitals are simply ornamental,
most of them as well as the larger sculptures in this area are allegorical, designed to impress
upon the city leaders their obligation to justice and virtue.
The capital of the corner column by the Porta della Carta is
decorated with an allegorical figure of Justice, while a larger 15th-century sculpture of the
Judgement of Solomon appears above. On the other two corners 14th-century sculptures depicting
the Drunkenness of Noah and Adam and Eve serve as reminders of human
The column capitals (many of which have been replaced or are
badly worn) were carved with such personifications of Virtue and Justice as Moses, Solon,
Aristotle and Numa Pompilius, and images of the Planets and the Months, according to an
iconographic programme derived from Gothic cathedrals.
The Porta della Carta, situated between the
palace and S Marco, forms the main entrance to the courtyard and palace. It was begun by
Giovanni Buon and his son Bartolomeo Buon in 1438, and with its mixture of Gothic and
proto-Renaissance elements provides the most important surviving example of the Venetian style
of that time.
Its present name refers to the government’s practice of posting
proclamations on the doorway, though it was originally referred to as the ‘Golden Doorway’ on
account of its extensive gilding. Despite being stripped of its gold and polychromy the doorway
remains rich in detail and iconography.
Extending the iconography of the façade sculpture, a figure of
Justice crowns the doorway, while St Mark, the patron saint of Venice, appears in a roundel
In the canopied niches placed against the side pillars are
statues of Virtues: Prudence, Charity, Temperance and Fortitude. Immediately above the door a
relief showing Doge Francesco Foscari Kneeling before the Lion of St Mark reproduces an earlier
sculpture that was destroyed during the revolutionary turmoil of 1797. It symbolizes the divine
approval of the Republic, a theme that was often represented inside the
The Porta della Carta leads through a vaulted
corridor known as the Porticato Foscari to the Arco Foscari, which was built in the 15th
century and embellished by later doges. The structure serves both as an impressive triumphal
arch leading to the palace courtyard and as a transept façade for S Marco. Many of its
important architectural elements, such as the two superimposed orders and the columns,
pinnacles and figure sculpture above, are derived from the west façade of S
Sculptures by Rizzo of Adam and Eve (replaced by copies)
echo the religious tone of the basilica. Thus the Arco Foscari reveals two tendencies prominent
in 15th-century Venetian civic architecture: the desire to establish richly decorated focal
points along major visual and ceremonial axes, and the willingness to combine elements from
different styles to achieve the greatest possible richness of colour and
The Doge’s Palace courtyard
was built in several stages from the late 15th century to the mid-16th. Its principal architect
was Rizzo, who began to rebuild the courtyard after it was destroyed by fire in 1483, and who
continued to work on it until 1498, when he fled the city after being found to have embezzled
money from the palace workshop treasury.
He was succeeded by Pietro Lombardo, who generally
followed Rizzo’s plan. Rizzo’s structure, which is seen most clearly in the façade facing the
Grand Canal, displays the Venetian Gothic interest in rich surface elaboration marked by
irregular rhythms (caused in part by the need to work around the existing interior spaces and
fenestration) and rich textural effects.
However, it also shows Classical borrowings in many of its
decorative elements such as garlands, arms, armour and inlaid roundels. The final result is a
pleasing mixture of syncopated rhythms and richly varied textures, although the effect of his
work has been somewhat obscured by sculpture added in the 16th and 17th
The Doge’s Palace courtyard
served as a large gathering place for the citizens and provided an elegant setting for the
impressive Scala dei Giganti, built by Rizzo after the earlier staircase was destroyed in the
fire of 1483.
The structure fulfilled several functions, serving as the grand
entrance to the palace, the site of major ceremonies such as the coronation of the doge and as
the major sculptural focus of the palace. Its role, therefore, was not only practical but also
symbolic, as is apparent from the design.
Rizzo deliberately emphasized the staircase by giving it a
different scale and decoration in relation to the surrounding walls. The massive staircase
leads into the palace through three arches of the first floor arcade, recalling a Roman
triumphal arch. A small prison used to house traitors and enemies of the state was situated
below the stairs, so that the doge could ceremonially tread on them as he entered and exited
Colossal statues of Mars and Neptune, sculpted by Jacopo
Sansovino and his pupils in the 16th century, crown the staircase on either side and proclaim
the military and naval power of Venice.
The staircase and the Arco Foscari separate the main courtyard
from the Cortile dei Senatori, a small area built c. 1520 in which members of the Senate
gathered during state ceremonies. Antonio Scarpagnino, the presumed architect of at least part
of the internal façade, harmonized it with the main courtyard by repeating many of the forms
found there. This audience area, together with the staircase and the rest of the courtyard,
reflects the sense of theatre that characterized the Doge’s Palace, where the city’s major
events were acted out.
Much of the Doge’s Palace was destroyed by fire
in 1574 and 1577, and many influential citizens of Venice, including Palladio, proposed
rebuilding it in a grandiose Renaissance style. Palladio found the building particularly
hideous: ‘The fabric was in a barbarous style because, to say nothing of the ugliness of the
orders, it was very weak, having the solid part above the void, and the thick and heavy part
above the narrow.’ Jacopo Sansovino was the only leading Venetian architect to support the city
leaders’ decision to rebuild the palace in its original form.
Doge’s Palace Painting and
The decorative programme of the interior of the Doge’s Palace
was designed to represent the most illustrious moments in the history of the Venetian Republic
and to impress its visitors with the splendour of the city. Though originally decorated in the
14th, 15th and early 16th centuries by leading artists from both the city and the mainland,
including Guariento, Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio and Titian,
most of the existing decoration postdates the fire of 1577, which gutted the palace destroying
most of the earlier masterpieces.
The Scala dei Giganti leads into a loggia, which in turn opens
on to the Scala d’Oro that leads to the main halls of the palace. The latter staircase was
completed in the mid-16th century and received its name from the rich gold stucco decoration on
its vaulted ceiling. The decorative scheme was designed by Alessandro Vittoria and is a
simplified version of the decoration planned by Jacopo Sansovino for the bronze door of the
sacristy of S Marco. The ceiling contains a profusion of decorative motifs—foliage, crowns,
busts of heroes, philosophers, orators, and personifications of history, politics, religion,
law and science—intended to overwhelm the visitor with a host of references to Venetian glories
rather than to present a unified allegorical programme.
The staircase leads to a vestibule (the Atrio Quadrato) with a
ceiling painting (around 1654–1655) by Jacopo Tintoretto showing Doge Girolamo Priuli
(1559–1567) receiving the sword and balance, emblems of Venice, from Justice, while the Virgin
and Priuli’s patron saint, Jerome, pray for the prosperity of his reign. The theme of the
painting echoes the emphasis on Justice seen in the palace’s exterior decoration, while the
heavenly setting of the scenes implies divine approval of the Venetian Republic. Beyond the
vestibule is a succession of state rooms. The Sala delle Quattro Porte, which served first as
the seat of the College and then as a vestibule of honour, was partially designed by
The decoration of the room, which includes a statue by Vittoria
of Vigilance, illustrates the power and virtues of the Venetian Republic. The stuccoed ceiling
was painted by Jacopo Tintoretto with an allegory of the Triumph of Venice (1577) surrounded by
smaller compartments in which are depicted the regions and cities under Venetian control. On
one wall is a canvas by Titian and his nephew Marco Vecellio showing Doge Antonio Grimani
Adoring Faith, while Andrea Vicentino’s Entrance of Henry III into Venice in 1574 appears on
another. An allegorical scene of Neptune Offering Venice the Gifts of the Sea (1745–1750) was
added by Giambattista Tiepolo.
The Sala dell’Anticollegio was given a particularly rich
decoration in order to impress the foreign ambassadors who would wait here before an audience
with the doge. The ceiling contains one of Veronese’s finest works, Venice Distributing Honours
and Rewards, painted in 1586–7. Four works painted by Tintoretto in 1577–1578 in the vestibule
were moved into this room in 1714: Bacchus, Ariadne and Venus, the Three Graces and Mercury,
the Forge of Vulcan and Minerva Rejecting Mars. A fireplace by Vincenzo Scamozzi and Veronese’s
lavish Rape of Europa (1580) completed the decoration of this room.
Just beyond is the Sala del Collegio, the main audience hall,
where the doge, six councillors, three chiefs of the Criminal Courts, the appointed sages of
the Republic, and the three heads of the Council of Ten sat on state
The ceiling is decorated with a series of paintings commissioned
from Veronese in 1574 illustrating the power and virtues of Venice, including the large Venice
Enthroned with Justice and Peace and a painting of Mars and Neptune symbolizing the military
and naval power of the city. Smaller paintings of the Virtues, represented as richly dressed
female figures, complete the painted decoration of the ceiling. On the walls below are
illustrations by Veronese and Tintoretto of four 16th-century doges celebrating military
victories or giving thanks to religious figures for their successes or, in one case, for
deliverance of the city from the plague.
The Sala del Senato is similarly decorated with paintings
illustrating divine protection of Venice and the development of her culture. The central
compartment of the ceiling shows the Triumph of Venice as Queen of the Sea, designed by
Tintoretto and executed by his pupils. Another painting by Tintoretto’s school portrays Doge
Loredan praying to the Virgin for help in defeating the Turks and stopping the plague. A canvas
over the door by Palma Giovane shows Doge Pasquale Cicogna asking Christ to save the city from
famine and pestilence, while yet another shows Venice’s victorious battle against the League of
The Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci was the site of the meetings of
the ten magistrates appointed to protect the city and its government from political enemies. It
contained three paintings by Veronese dated 1553–4: Jupiter Expelling the Vices (Paris, Louvre;
replaced in situ by 17th-century copy), an allegory of the justice meted out by the Council;
Juno Bestowing Gifts on Venice, suggesting the bounty the city enjoyed thanks to her conquest
of vice; and Youth and Age, also known as Proserpina and Pluto, an allegorical reference to the
old and new domains of the Republic.
Other government chambers were also lavishly decorated in the
15th and 16th centuries, as were the doge’s private rooms. The most monumental decoration was
reserved, however, for the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, a vast room that could hold as many as
3000 people. This was the site of the legislative meetings of the lower house of the Venetian
government, which numbered up to 1600 members; elections and banquets were also held here.
After most of the 14th- and 15th-century masterpieces were destroyed in the fire of 1577,
Veronese and Tintoretto were called in to redecorate the room with historical and mythological
scenes illustrating the wars, victories and growth of Venice. On the ceiling are paintings
showing Venice, Queen of the Sea Presenting the Doge with an Olive Branch, probably by
Tintoretto and his pupils, and a Triumph of Venice (1579–1582) that was painted by
The walls are decorated with scenes of the 12th-century conflict
between Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III, in which Venice achieved prestige
as a diplomatic negotiator, as well as events of the Fourth Crusade (1204). Other battle scenes
complete the wall decoration. Above is a frieze by Domenico Tintoretto depicting the first 76
doges of Venice. Only Marino Falier, who was executed for treason, is omitted.
In his place is a black curtain, a reminder that even the most powerful man in Venice was
subject to justice. All of these decorations are overpowered by Jacopo and Domenico
Tintoretto’s enormous (if not entirely compositionally satisfying) image of Paradise
(1588–1590), which gained fame as the largest painting on canvas (7.62×21.34 m) in the world.
It filled the wall behind the thrones of the doge and the heads of government, and thus acted
as a final, overwhelming reminder of the divinely privileged position the Venetians gave
Doge’s Palace Map&Location
Pallazzo Ducale Address: Sestiere San Marco, 1, 30124 Venezia, Italy. Get
help with directions using the map provided bellow:
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