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The Doges' Palace

[Venice - First Impressions]  [The Story Of Venice]  [The Stones Of Venice]  [The Painters Of Venice]  [The Heart Of Venice]  [St Mark's Church]  [The Doges' Palace]  [The Grand Canal]  [Some Venetian Churches]  [Venetian Islands]  [More Articles About Venice] 

( Originally Published Mid-1900's )



Before describing the Doge's Palace it will be as well to explain briefly the nature of the Venetian constitution.

First of all there was the Great Council, which consisted of all those whose names have been inscribed in the Libro d'Oro, or Golden Book. Every descendant of any one of those whose names had been inscribed in this book was eligible to enter the Great Council at the age of eighteen, and, in effect, the Great Council consisted of all adult members of the Venetian nobility. In 1510 the membership of the Great Council had risen to 1671 members.

In its early days the Great Council had wide powers; it declared war and made peace, levied the taxes, and made alliances, but gradually many of these powers were delegated to the Senate. The Great Council, however, continued till the fall of the Republic to appoint all great officers of State.

The Council of Ten was formed in 1310 as a result of the Bajamonte conspiracy. It proved so useful that its powers were made permanent in 1335. The Decemvirs were appointed for one year, and were not eligible for re-election. They received no pay for their ser vices.It was the duty of the Ten to deal with treachery and conspiracy, with criminal charges against the aristocracy, and, in general, with offences against public morals.

In the middle of the sixteenth century the dread of Spain and of Spanish plots led to the establishment of an even smaller body, the Supremo Terribile Tribunale, or the Three State Inquisitors. Of the three Inquisitors one, who was clothed in red, sat in the middle and was called the rosso, and the other two were clad in black and were called the negri.

When we visit the Doges' Palace we shall see the Bocche del Leone, in which secret denunciations were placed.

The greatest care was taken to test the credibility of these denunciations before acting on them.

The Council of Ten and the Tribunal of the State Inquisitors were responsible, like other human tribunals, for occasional miscarriages of justice, but their undoubted popularity with the bulk of the population is the best tribute to their justice. "They were a bulwark against treachery," writes Mr Okey,they protected the people from the insolence and arbitrariness of nobles : they maintained equality and were stern censors of morals. Their best defence is the fact that they endured to the fall of the Republic.

In moments of national emergency and crisis the Council of Ten acted with a grim combination of swiftness and resolution. Witness the case of the great condottiere Francesco Bussone, Count of Carmagnola. Carmagnola, the greatest professional soldier of the period, had deserted from the Milanese to take service under Venice.He proved, however, to be exasperat ing in his dilatoriness.At the critical moment of a campaign he would suddenly decide to take the baths, leaving the conduct of operations to his subordinates.

Venice gradually began to suspect that Carmagnola was secretly preparing to transfer his services to the enemy, a custom justified by the highest precedent of professional generalship. The Senate decided to lure Carmagnola to Venice, and Giovanni de Imperi, secretary to the Council of Ten, was entrusted with this delicate and dangerous mission, dangerous, because if Carmagnola suspected the truth he would have begun by hanging Giovanni and he would then have proceeded to march on Venice.Giovanni was a pale faced, unimpressive little man, but he had a heart of steel, and he carried out his mission with complete success.

When the General arrived at the Ducal Palace he was informed that he had been honoured with an invitation to dine with the Doge, an invitation which did not include his suite. As the General passed through the different apartments of the Ducal Palace he noticed with some alarm that no time was wasted in closing the doors behind him. He asked to see the Doge, and was informed that the Doge was unwell, but would see him on the following day. The General turned to go, and an official pointed to a corridor which led to the prison. "But that is not the way," exclaimed the General. "Oh, yes, it is," answered the official, and the guard closed in, and the General was hustled to his doom shouting, " I am a dead man." At his trial the General was tortured.As the torturer began to prepare the cord the General pointed to his arm, which had been broken in the service of Venice. The brazier was accordingly applied to his feet instead. A few days later the General was executed between the red columns.The awful tragedy," writes Mr Okey,had been planned and executed with consummate skill and resolution. Two hundred officials were cognisant of the process: not one opened his mouth to betray the secret. From the time the victim left Vicenza he was practically under arrest, though this he never suspected.

The Council of Ten proved equally effective in dealing with a treacherous Doge. In 1355 Marino Falieri plotted to make himself despot of Venice, but the Ten ferreted out the plot, arrested the Doge, and condemned him to death.He was duly executed in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace. The Acts of the Ten contain no record of his execution. The words " Let it not be written" are on the page where the minutes recording the verdict should have been entered. The Palace of the Doges was founded in 814, but practically nothing of the original building survives. The south wing of the palace, which faces the sea, dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century, the west wing, which faces the Piaazetta, from the beginning of the fifteenth century. The palace was badly damaged by fires in 1574 and 1577.

The columns of the lower arcade are famous for the beauty of their carved capitals and for the absence of bases. Their squat appearance is due to the fact that the level of the Piazzetta has been raised nearly two feet since the Ducal Palace was built. Above the groundfloor arcade there is a loggia with pointed arches, along the summit of which runs a quatrefoil frieze, the famous Venetian Gothic motif which we shall meet again in the Ca d'Oro and in many other Venetian palaces. The upper portion of the facade is faced by a diamond pattern of pink and white marble, which is most effective. Such are the bare, bleak facts concerning the exterior of one of the most enchanting buildings in the world. Mr E. V. Lucas, in his delightful book A Wanderer in Venice, writes as follows:

The Ducal Palace is Gothic made sprightly and sunny : Gothic without a hint of solidity or gloom. So light and fresh is the effect, chiefly the result of the double row of arches and especially of the upper row, but not a little due to the zig zagging of the brickwork and the vivid cheerfulness of the coping fringe, that one has difficulty in believing that the palace is of any age at all or that it will really be there tomorrow. The other buildings in the neighbourhood the Prison, the Mint, the Library, the Campanile : these are rooted. But the Doges' Palace might float away at any moment. Alladin's lamp set it there: another rub and why should it not vanish ?

The beautiful sculptures on the ground floor arcade are elaborately described by Ruskin.

Passing through the Porta della Carta, which though Gothic in treatment shows the classical influence in the introduction of the Cupid among the leaves, we enter the courtyard. Here the Renaissance style predominates, but expiring Gothic has left its mark.

The Giants' Staircase takes its name from the two large statues of Mars and Neptune at the top. Both these statues are by Sansovino.

I shall not describe the rooms in detail.On your first visit you should secure the services of a guide, plenty of whom are in attendance.When you have discovered which room is which you should return for a more leisurely study of some of the chief pictures in the collection. The upper gallery, which runs round the courtyard, contains a fine collection of busts of Venetian notabilities, such as Tintoretto, Veronese, the dramatist Goldoni, Marco Polo, and others. A striking bust of the great friar Paolo Sarpi should be noted.

The Doges' Palace contains a great many fine paintings, of which the most famous are Bacchus and Ariadne, by Tintoretto, and Titian's fresco of St Christopher. Veronese is also well represented. The vast sala of the Grand Council contains Tintoretto's tremendous Paradiso. Veronese had been selected to paint this picture, but he died, and Tintoretto, whose claims had been passed over because of his age, was allowed to try his hand. The result gave universal satisfaction.

The ceiling was painted by Veronese, and represents the apotheosis of Venice. Veronese's wife was the model for the figure of Venice in this picture and also for the figure of Europa in the ante-room of the Sala del Collegio. The walls of the sala of the Great Council are decorated by twenty-one representations of great incidents in the history of Venice, the more important of which are described in Chapter II of this book. Thus the conflict between Barbarossa and the Pope Alexander III is the theme of more than one of these paintings. Other paintings represent incidents of the Fourth Crusade and of the capture of Constantinople by Dandolo.

The gloomy cells and torture-chamber are also open to inspection, but the famous cells under the roof, the Piombi, were closed in 1929. These cells had a grim reputation which was undeserved. They were no better and no worse than any other prison cells of the period. Indeed, the Venetian Republic enjoyed a great reputation for its humanity to prisoners. Torture was employed in Venice as elsewhere, but torture appears to have been employed less frequently and less severely than was customary at the time.The Bridge of Sighs, which connects the palace with the prison, is not the bridge on which Byron stood and to which he refers in the well-known line:

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs.

Probably Byron stood on the Ponte della Paglia (Bridge of Straw), from which there is a fine view of the Bridge of Sighs.The actual Bridge of Sighs is a passage lit by gratings.One does not stand on it, one stands in it.

There is nothing romantic about the Bridge of Sighs except its name and its beautiful appearance. It was probably never crossed by any prisoner of note, and merely served as a means of communication between the criminal courts and the criminal prison for very commonplace ruffians. However, the "pathetic swindle," as Howell calls it, still provokes the sentimental to a sigh, in spite of Baedeker's cutting remarks on the subject.



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