Doge’s Palace

Doge’s Palace

One of the most remarkable buildings of Venice, the Doge’s Palace is situated in the Piazzetta between San Marco and the Grand Canal.

Doge’s Palace History

Doge’s Palace

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 visiting.

Doges Palace Courtyard

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 stories.

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 gallery.

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 Eastern design.

The wall above, covered with a diaper pattern of white Istrian stone and rose-colored Verona marble, adds to the colorful exoticism of the building, as does the delicate crenellation that crowns this façade.

Doges Palace San Marco

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.

Doges Palace ornamental decorations

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 weakness.

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 program 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 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 below.

Doges Palace Corridor

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 palace.

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 Marco.

Sculptures by Rizzo of Adam and Eve (replaced by copies) echo the religious tone of the basilica. Thus 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 color and texture.

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.

Doges Palace Statue

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, armor, 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 centuries.

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 the palace.

Doges Palace Aerial view

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 Decoration

Doges Palace Statue

The decorative program 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 splendor 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 onto 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 program.

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 staterooms. The Sala delle Quattro Porte, which served first as the seat of the College and then as a vestibule of honor, was partially designed by Palladio.

Doges Palace Prison Courtyard

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 councilors, three chiefs of the Criminal Courts, the appointed sages of the Republic, and the three heads of the Council of Ten sat on state occasions.

Doges Palace exterior decoration

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 the deliverance of the city from the plague.

The Sala del Senato is similarly decorated with paintings illustrating the 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 Cambrai.

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 Veronese.

Doges Palace Scala dei Giganti

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 themselves.

Doge’s Palace Location

Pallazzo Ducale Address: Sestiere San Marco, 1, 30124 Venezia, Italy. Get help with directions using the map provided below:

Doge’s Palace Map

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