Short history lesson
What’s a ‘Doge’?
Until the 19th century, Italy was anything but a unified country. The Italian territory was divided into several kingdoms and republics, among which the Republic of Venice, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany or the Kingdom of Sicily.
In the Italian Republics, power was in the hands of a “doge”, a high-ranking magistrate in charge of running the city. This high-ranking official, chosen among the nobility, was appointed for life (even though it was not uncommon for the doge to resign in his old days and retire in a monastery, away from the dangers of political life!)
In Venice, the Doge had many powers: he decided on war or peace, commanded the armies, presided over the senate… But he did not administer the ‘Serenissima’ (the ‘Most Serene Republic of Venice’) alone. All his decisions had to be reviewed by the ‘Council of Ten’, a body responsible for ensuring the security of the Republic.
From 697 to 1797 (when Napoleon’s armies invaded the city), the Republic of Venice was headed by 120 different doges.
Short history of the Doge’s Palace in Venice
The Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale in Italian) as we know it is not the first palace to be built by the doges in Venice. Before the 10th century, another palace stood on the exact spot where the Doge’s Palace stands today: far from being as lavish, this first monument looked much more like a fortified castle than the elegant palace that we know today. This first residence of the doges was destroyed in a fire in 976 and there remains no vestige of it.
Construction of the present Doge’s Palace began in 1340. Over the following centuries, the palace was enlarged, remodeled, restored and embellished multiple times until it finally took on its current appearance in the early 17th century.
Doges spent copious amounts of money to make their palace a symbol of power and refinement: the greatest artists and best Italian architects were enlisted to work on the palace, among whom Pietro Baseggio, Filippo Calendario, Jacobello and Pierpaolo dalle Masegne, Antonio Rizzo, Giovanni Bon, Veronese or Tintoretto.
Visiting the Doge’s Palace
The Doge’s Palace is an an architectural marvel which brilliantly blends Gothic and Byzantine influences. Follow Captain Ulysses on a tour of this Venetian gem!
⚓Attention, sailors! ⚓
Looking for more tips and suggestions for your trip to Venice ? Check out the Capitain’s article on the best things to do in Venice !
Exterior of the Doge’s Palace
First stop before even entering the palace to admire its remarkable facades.
The architects have achieved a true tour de force: the western façade, on Piazetta San Marco, and the southern façade, overlooking the lagoon, a few steps from the Grand Canal, are the result of a complex architectural technique: the lower sections of the facades are light and airy, with wide openings, while the higher sections are filled and heavier.
Captain Ulysses recommends that you take a short detour by the Doge’s Palace several times during the day. Why? The colour of the façade changes under different lighting and takes on a pinkish hue at certain times of day.
Porta della Carta
The Porta della Carte, built in 1440, was the main gate of the Doge’s Palace.
According to historians, several theories can explain the name of this stunning Gothic door:
- This is where the decrees and public notices were posted for the Venetians to see
- This is where the public scribes set up their desks
- The archives of state documents were located nearby
Although the door is now known as the “Porta della Carta”, it was first called the “Golden Door” because it was originally entirely decorated with gilding.
But despite its delicate and complex ornamentations, the door has not always been a favourite of the Venetians’! Why, you may ask? Well, because of the statue representing doge Francesco Foscari kneeling in front of the lion of St. Mark. Doges were not allowed to think of themselves as kings, which is why Francesco Foscari caused a scandal!
The statue of the doge that you can see on the Porta della Carte is a facsimile. The original satue was moved to safety during the invasion of the city by the Napoleonic armies and is now exhibited in the museum of the Doge’s Palace.
If the facades of the Doge’s Palace look surprisingly harmonious for a building that has undergone so many transformations over the years, the same cannot be said of the courtyard of the palace, which looks much more eclectic and showcases a variety of architectural styles: Gothic, Renaissance…
The city’s powers were formerly organized around this courtyard, with the residence of the doge, the seat of government, the courthouse and St. Mark’s Basilica (which is located just behind the Doge’s Palace).
The Giants’ Staircase
Designed by Antonio Rizzo in the late 15th century, the Giants’ Staircase (“Scala dei Giganti” in Italian) is undoubtedly the most striking and emblematic element in the inner courtyard of the Doge’s Palace.
This imposing staircase is guarded by two statues designed by the Italian sculptor Jacopo Sansovino in 1565: Mercury (the god of trade) and Neptune (the god of the sea).
The doges were nominated right here, between these statues symbolizing Venice’s power by land and by sea.
The Golden Staircase
The Golden Staircase (“Scala d’Oro” in Italian) leads to the institutional halls.
Completed in 1559, the Golden Staircase is a true marvel: designed in the classical style, it is adorned with gold leaf-decorated stuccets and frescoes painted by Italian artist Giambattista Franco.
This lavish staircase was meant to impress visitors entering the Doge’s Palace and showcase the riches of Venice. It was reserved for the most illustrious guests and high-ranking Venetian dignitaries.
The Chamber of the Great Council
Located on the 1st floor of the palace, the Chamber of the Great Council is the jewel in the crown of the Doge’s Palace, not only because of its monumental dimensions (53 meters long, 26 meters wide and 10 meters high / 174 ft x 85 ft x 33 ft) but also because of the sumptuousness of its decoration.
Built in the 14th century, this vast room was designed to receive the meetings of the ‘Great Council’, the political assembly made up of the male members of the Venetian nobility.
Much like a museum, the Chamber of the Great Council exhibits pieces from world-renowned Italian artists, like Veronese and Tintoretto.
Don’t miss Veronese’s Triumph of Venice, nor Tintoretto’s Il Paradisio, which is the longest canvas painting in the world.
Portraits of the first 76 doges of Venice are arranged on the walls of the room. But one of them is not quite like the others… A large black sheet is painted over Doge Marino Faliero’s face. Why? Marino Faliero was found guilty and executed for plotting a coup against the Republic of Venice. The following mention in Latin appears on the painting: “Hic is locus Marini Faletri decapitti pro criminibus” (“here is Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes”).
The Prison and the Bridge of Sighs
Up until the 16th century, the Doge’s Palace housed the prison of Venice within its walls. Located just under the lead roof, the Old Prison was nicknamed the “Piombi” (“lead” in Italian). The atmosphere in the “Piombi” was stiffling and temperatures could reach 50 degrees Celsius.
In the early 17th century, a New Prison was built on the other side of the Rio della Canonica. It was connected to the Doge’s Palace by the famous Bridge of Sighs.
Contrary to the old Venetian prison, the cells of this new prison were located underground, hence their nickname: the “Pozzi” (the Wells). They were cold and damp, not to mention that they were regularly flooded.
Since their construction, only one prisoner was able to escape the prisons of the Doge’s Palace. Any idea who this might be? Here is a clue: convicted of debauchery, atheism, occultism and Masonic affiliation this well-known man is said to have seduced 142 different women….
… Casanova, of course! He managed to escape the prison in 1755!
Secret rooms in the Doge’s Palace
Every day, at 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m., a few visitors are granted access to off-limits areas in the Doge’s Palace. They can visit secret rooms where other visitors are not allowed to set foot, such as the attic where Giacomo Casanova was held prisoner. The lucky visitors can also admire paintings from Veronese, Titian or Tintoretto which other visitors are not allowed to see.
Find out more: Secret tour of the Doge’s Palace
Getting to the Doge’s Palace
The Doge’s Palace is located in the historic centre of Venice, between St. Mark’s Basilica, St. Mark’s Square and the Venetian lagoon. The closest vaporetto stations are San Zaccaria and San Marco.
The Doge’s Palace is open daily, from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. It is closed on December 25th and January 1st.
Tickets to the Doge’s Palace
The ticket to the Doge’s Palace also grants access to the Correr Museum, to the National Archaeological Museum and to the National Library of St Mark.
Tickets cost 25 euros per adult and 13 euros for children aged 6 to 14, students aged 15 to 25 and visitors over the age of 65. Admission is free for children under 6.
FYI: Venice is a very touristy city year-round and you may have to wait in line for quite a while before getting to the Doge’s Palace.
To avoid waiting, Captain Ulysses advises that you:
- go early
- or opt for a skip-the-line ticket (€27.50)
- or opt for the Venice Museum Pass, which includes skip-the-line accesses to a selection of Venetian museums and monuments (€37.80)
Guided tours of the Doge’s Palace
If you don’t want to miss out on any of the treasures of the Doge’s Palace and are interested in finding out more about its long history, you might want to opt for a guided tour.
Find out more: Skip-the-line-tickets to the Doge’s Palace + guided tour (€42)
And if you love to venture into off-limits corners, do not miss the Secret tour of the Doge’s Palace!
Want more tips and advice on visiting Venice? Head to Captain Ulysses’ other articles:
- the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
- St. Mark’s Basilica
- The Grand Canal
- The Gallerie Dell’Accademia
- Santa Maria della Salute Basilica
- the Venetian Arsenal
- The Rialto Bridge
- The Bridge of Sighs
Venice is a very touristy city and you’ll have plenty hotels to choose from, but, be warned: they are overall rather expensive. If your budget is tight, Captain Ulysses suggests staying in Mestre, just outside of Venice, where hotels are much more affordable and you’ll find regular buses to Venice. Find out more here. For intermediate budgets, Captain Ulysses highly recommends Hotel Le Isole: ideally located a few steps from St. Mark’s Square, this beautiful hotel boasts spacious and elegant rooms. And if you’re looking for a more luxurious option in Venice, then Captain Ulysses most definitely recommends the Londra Palace nestled in a Venetian palace on the Riva degli Schiavoni.
Tickets, guided tours, gondola tours, day-trips… There are plenty of things to do in Venice. But the city is often packed with tourists, which is why Captain Ulysses recommend that you book your activities online and opt for skip-the-line tickets. The Captain suggests having a look at Musement and Tiqets, which are online platforms specialised in selling tourist activities worldwide.
Venice is synonymous gondola and vaporetto. As an accomplished sailor, Captain Ulysses can only recommend that you embark on a boat ride on the Venetian canals. But beware of cams: some gondoliers tend to take advantage of tourists! That’s why the Captain advises that you book your boat tour on a reputable website like here or here.
If you’re planning on visiting all of Venice’s top sights, Captain Ulysses recommends you to opt for a Citypass,which will give you access to a selection of the city’s must-see sights and monuments. There’s a variety of citypasses to choose from. Find out more here.
To get to Venice from the airport, you’ll have four poptions: the bus, the vaporetto (orange Alilaguna Arancio line), the taxi or the water taxi. It’s up to you to choose the option that works best for you! 🙂 Be aware, however, that the historic centre is pedestrian, and buses and taxis are not allowed to operate there.
Get ready to walk. The historic centre is not accessible to buses or cars. The local type of public transport is the vaporetto: boats travelling on the water. If you’re planning on using the vaporetto regularly (in Venice or to visit the surrounding islands like Murano and Burano), or if you are staying in Mestre and have to take the bus to Venice everyday, you might want to consider opting for a Public Transport Pass. You can book it here.
Venice is a city easily accessible by plane, train and bus. To book your plane tickets, Captain Ulysses recommends Skyscanner, which allows you to compare countless flights to find the best deal. If your dates are flexible, you can also compare prices over several months to find the cheapest flights possible. Overnight trains are also a great way to save time (and money) ! For more information, visit Trainline.com.
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