Venice is famous for its canals, glass making and mighty maritime republic. Its supremacy once extended across northeast Italy, down through Croatia to Istanbul. And although Venetian glory has faded, you can still catch a glimpse of its opulence and vast wealth with a visit to the old seat of power, the beautiful Doge’s Palace in St Mark’s Square. In fact, a tour of the palace is an essential part of any visit to Venice to understand its glorious history. So lets take a peek inside to uncover some of the palace’s oldest secrets and most fascinating facts.
1) The Doge’s Palace was the centre of the Venetian Republic
Almost from the birth of Venice, an elected Doge or president ruled over the city and made his home overlooking the Venetian lagoon. Originally the palace started out as a fortress surrounded by canals, but as the republic grew, it was rebuilt to become the first and finest building visitors saw as they arrived from the sea.
But it wasn’t just a fancy palace for the Doge. It was also the seat of the Venetian government and the place where new Doges were elected for life, as well as the home of the secret police, the justice courts and the prison.
The most important decisions about Venice’s laws, rulers, trade and empire were taken in the Doge’s Palace. And few were allowed entry to the heart of the government, unless they were a member of one of Venice’s noble families or a civil servant. Fortunately today, Venice’s secret corridors of power are open to small groups of visitors, but its essential to book in advance to gain entry to this most private and fascinating world.
2) Venice was the richest and most powerful city in Europe
Venice made much of its wealth trading spices, wool and silks between Europe and the Middle East. It controlled the Adriatic Sea, protecting shipping routes from piracy and conquering key ports along the way. And by the late 1200s, Venice was the most prosperous city in Europe, dominating the Mediterranean market, making both the Republic and the city’s trading families very rich indeed.
With so much disposable cash, many families built magnificent palaces along the Grand Canal. They also became patrons of the arts, commissioning paintings and sculptures to decorate their new palaces.
And the Doges were no different so the palace was rebuilt in the finest Gothic style with a pretty pink exterior, ornate arcade and lattice-patterned brickwork. Its gilded interior was even grander, ensuring that the palace was a sumptuous declaration of style and extravagance.
Following in the footsteps of countless foreign dignitaries, you are transported back to Venice’s glory days as you climb the Golden Staircase and enter the staterooms. Sculptures, carvings and paintings by the greatest Venetian painters cover every surface of the building. And the list of artists reads like a who’s who of Renaissance art with masterpieces by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Tiepolo and celebrated architect Andrea Palladio, all employed to provoke awe and glorify the Venetian Republic. This was Venice at its most triumphant.
And just like the great visitors of the past, your head will spin as you discover that each successive stateroom is grander and greater than the last. But if you really want to understand Venice’s glorious past a guided tour is essential to skip the queues and decode the symbols and signs of the city’s golden age.
3) The Doge’s Palace houses the largest oil painting in the world
The Doge’s Palace is packed with wonderful works of art, but none rival the scale and grandeur of the painting that hangs in the Hall of the Great Council; Tintoretto’s heavenly masterpiece, Paradise.
No room in the Doge’s Palace was bigger or more important than this one. When the council was in session, the hall had to accommodate all 0f the 1,800 noble citizens entitled to vote. And all decisions made by the Republic were discussed here so when the hall required redecorating after a fire, a contest was held to appoint an artist of suitable stature.
Measuring an enormous 22 by 9 meters (74 by 30 feet), Tintoretto’s oil painting is the largest in the world; a spectacular sight filling the entire wall behind the Doge’s throne with a seething mass of around 500 saintly figures ascending to heaven.
At its completion, Paradise was roundly applauded as a truly immense achievement by the 70-year old artist, who was rewarded handsomely of course, and as a perfect display of Venice’s grandeur and power. It was Tintoretto’s crowning glory and his final flourish before his death six years later.
4) St Mark’s Basilica was once the Doge’s private chapel
If you think the palace is ornate, however, wait till you see his private chapel – the stunning golden St Mark’s Basilica. These days the beautiful basilica is the city’s cathedral, but it was originally built as the Doge’s personal sanctuary and to house the bones of the apostle Mark the Evangelist that Venetians stole from Egypt’s ancient city of Alexandria in 828 AD.
Nicknamed the “Chiesa d’Oro,” or church of gold, the Byzantine style basilica is covered in glittering Murano glass mosaics, both inside and out. The floor is a colorful kaleidoscope of marble geometric patterns reminiscent of Arabic mosques. It is a breathtaking symbol of Venice’s links with the East, its enormous trading wealth and its audacity.
Consequently, the basilica is one of Venice’s most popular spots, along with the Doge’s Palace, so make sure to book ahead to get the inside track on it’s fascinating history with your own personal guide.
5) Womanizer Giacomo Casanova was once a resident of the Doge’s Palace
From the grace of the basilica, we turn finally to the disgrace of Venice’s most notorious son, womanizer Giacomo Casanova.
Regardless of what he later claimed, Casanova wasn’t a nobleman and didn’t work for the state, so why was he a resident of the Doge’s Palace for a year in 1755?
It’s simple. Casanova was a prisoner in the Doge’s Palace jail.
You might think that the sassy, 30-year old had been convicted for adultery, but actually it was his fascination with illegal witchcraft, magic and the occult that was his undoing.
He was arrested after an anonymous tip-off, tried and condemned to five years in detention at the Doge’s pleasure. What happened next would surprise everyone, since the young man spent just one short year in his wood-paneled cell before hacking his way out over the roof and escaping via gondola to exile in Paris.
Casanova himself later turned his audacious escape into a best-selling book and today you can walk in his footsteps, treading the very boards of the attic prison cell that proved no match for the legendary Venetian!
Venice is waiting for you
Ultimately, there are a thousand reasons to visit the Doge’s Palace in Venice – we’ve not even mentioned the Bridge of Sighs, for example – these are just my top five. If you’re planning a visit, make sure to ask our travel experts to include a tour of the spectacular Doge’s Palace for you and check out even more inspiration…….Oh, and don’t forget to leave us a comment with your favorite facts about Venice. Buon viaggio!