As we looked around Piazza San Marco and took some photos I couldn’t help but notice that the line for the Doge’s Palace was strangely nonexistent. Originally my plan had been for us to come back to the square later in the day to visit the palace since it’s normally crowded in the morning but the tour buses must have been running late that day. I quickly talked with my parents and we all agreed it was best to take the opportunity before it disappeared. With that settled we walked up to the Doge’s Palace entrance, got our tickets, and started our tour.
The Doge’s Palace, called the “Palazzo Ducale” in Italian, is one of Venice’s main landmarks and for hundreds of years was the seat of power for the Venetian Republic. It was the residence of the Doge, who was the elected leader of Venice, as well as the place where many of the city’s political institutions were housed. When you first enter the palace you start in the inner courtyard. The domes of Basilica San Marco (St Mark’s Basilica) loom over the north side of the courtyard, reminding you that the church and the palace are right next door to each other. Probably the main feature of the courtyard is the Giants’ Staircase that has two large statues of the Roman gods Mars and Neptune at the top. These two statues were meant to symbolize Venice’s power both on land and at sea and any foreign dignitary would go up this staircase as part of their visit and be reminded that Venice was not to be trifled with.
After we took some photos we went up a set of stairs (sadly, not the Giants’ Staircase) to the palace’s second level and entered the Doge’s Apartments. These lavishly decorated rooms are where the Doge and his family lived and where the Doge would receive guests. Oil paintings and gilded decorations cover the walls and ceilings. The city of Venice personified as a blonde woman shows up in a couple of these paintings and she is either seated on a throne or chasing away her enemies.
Next on the palace tour we passed through a small armory full of Medieval and Renaissance weapons. This was yet another intimidation tactic for Venice’s leaders as they’d show off their collection of shiny weapons to foreign emissaries just to let them know Venice was heavily armed and ready for a fight. The armory is full of swords, spears, halberds, crossbows, maces, armor, and even some primitive firearms.
Right after the armory there was a room with a small modern art exhibit and a room with an old fresco that had been partially restored, but once we passed through that area we arrived at the highlight of the tour, the Great Council Chamber. This massive room was where the entire Venetian Council would gather and there are large oil paintings all over the walls and ceiling. On the wall above the place where the Doge would sit is Tintoretto’s enormous Paradise painting, which I think holds the record for being the largest oil painting on the planet. Right next to the Council Chamber is the Senate Chamber. The Venetian Senate was a separate governing body from the Great Council, though its members were selected from among the nobles in the Great Council.
Once we were done with the Great Council Chamber, Senate Chamber, and a couple of other Venetian government chambers the tour route took us across the Bridge of Sighs to the prison building behind the palace. The Bridge of Sighs is a corridor that crosses a canal and got its romanticized name because supposedly prisoners would look out its windows as they were marched to their cells and sigh as they took in their last view of Venice. Personally I think it’s kind of weird for a palace to be directly connected to a prison that’s right behind it but I guess it’s convenient to be able to hand out criminal sentences in the palace and then immediately send prisoners to the jail. The prison cells we saw were cold stone rooms but I overheard a nearby tour guide telling her tour group that these were considered pretty nice prison cells back in the 1600s.
When we crossed back to the palace there were just a few rooms left and then we found ourselves back in the courtyard. Before leaving the palace we used the restrooms and checked out a small exhibit showing off the remains of some old columns. Then we exited the palace out the doors that used to be the front entrance. When leaving the Doge’s Palace don’t forget to quickly stop and check out the mahogany-colored statues of four men that are on a corner of the building right outside the exit. Apparently these statues are of four Roman emperors and they were brought (probably stolen) from Constantinople in the 1200s. Thousands of people walk right past these dudes every day not realizing ancient Roman sculptures are just chilling on the outside of the building.