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The Ducal Palace

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

The charm which Venice still possesses, and which for the last fifty years has rendered it the favourite haunt of all the painters of picturesque subject, is owing to the effect of the palaces belonging to the period we have now to examine, mingled with those of the Renaissance.

The effect is produced in two different ways. The Renaissance palaces are not more picturesque in themselves than the club-houses of Pall Mall; but they become delightful by the contrast of their severity and refinement with the rich and rude confusion of the sea life beneath them, and of their white and solid masonry with the green waves. Remove from beneath them the orange sails of the fishing boats, the black gliding of the gondolas, the cumbered decks and rough crews of the barges of traffic, and the fretfulness of the green water along their foundations, and the Renaissance palaces possess no more interest than those of London or Paris. But the Gothic palaces are picturesque in themselves, and wield over us an independent power. Sea and sky, and every other accessory might be taken away from them, and still they would be beautiful and strange. They are not less striking in the loneliest streets of Padua and Vicenza (where many were built during the period of the Venetian authority in those cities) than in the most crowded thoroughfares of Venice itself; and if they could be transported into the midst of London, they would still not altogether lose their power over the feelings.

The best proof of this is in the perpetual attractiveness of all pictures, however poor in skill, which have taken for their subject the principal of these Gothic buildings, the Ducal Palace. In spite of all architectural theories and teachings, the paintings of this building are always felt to be delightful; we cannot be wearied by them, though often sorely tried; but we are not put to the same trial in the case of the palaces of the Renaissance. They are never drawn singly, or as the principal subject, nor can they be. The building which faces the Ducal Palace on the opposite side of the Piazzetta is celebrated among architects, but it is not familiar to our eyes; it is painted only incidentally, for the completion, not the subject, of a Venetian scene; and even the Renaissance arcades of St. Mark's Place, though frequently painted, are always treated as a mere avenue to its Byzantine church and colossal tower. And the Ducal Palace itself owes the peculiar charm which we have hitherto felt, not so much to its greater size as compared with other Gothic build= ings, or nobler design (for it never yet has been rightly drawn), as to its comparative isolation. The other Gothic structures are as much injured by the continual juxtaposition of the Renaissance palaces, as the latter are aided by it; they exhaust their own life by breathing it into the Renaissance coldness: but the Ducal Palace stands comparatively alone, and fully expresses the Gothic power...

The Ducal Palace, which was the great work of Venice, was built successively in the three styles. There was a Byzantine Ducal Palace, a Gothic Ducal Palace, and a Renaissance Ducal Palace. The second superseded the first totally; a few stones of it (if indeed so much) are all that is left. But the third superseded the second in part only, and the existing building is formed by the union of the two. We shall review the history of each in succession.


The year of the death of Charlemagne, 813,-the Venetians determined to make the island of Rialto the seat of the government and capital of their state. Their Doge, Angelo or Agnello Participazio, instantly took vigorous means for the enlargement of the small group of buildings which were to be the nucleus of the future Venice. He appointed persons to superintend the rising of the banks of sand, so as to form more secure founda tions, and to build wooden bridges over the canals. For the offices of religion he built the Church of St. Mark; and on, or near, the spot where the Ducal Palace now stands, he built a palace for the administration of the government.

The history of the Ducal Palace therefore begins with the birth of Venice, and to what remains of it, at this day, is entrusted the last representation of her power...

In the year 1106, it was for the second time injured by fire, but repaired before 1116, when it received another emperor Henry V. (of Germany), and was again honoured by imperial praise. Between 1173 and the close of the century, it seems to have been again repaired and much enlarged by the Doge Sebastian Ziani...


The reader, doubtless, recollects that the important change in the Venetian government which gave stability to the aristocratic power took place about the year 1297, under the Doge Pietro Gradenigo, a man thus characterized by Sansovino: - " A prompt and prudent man, of unconquerable determination and great eloquence, who laid, so to speak, the foundations of the eternity of this republic, by the admirable regulations which he introduced into the government."

We accordingly find it recorded by Sansovino, that " in 1301 another saloon was begun on the Rio del Palazzo under the Doge Gradenigo, and finished in 1309, in which year the Grand Council first sat in it." In the first year, therefore, of the Fourteenth Century, the Gothic Ducal Palace of Venice was begun; and as the Byzantine Palace, was, in its foundation, coeval with that of the state, so the Gothic Palace, was, in its foundation, coeval with that of the aristocratic power. Considered as the principal repre sentation of the Venetian school of architecture, the Ducal Palace is the Parthenon of Venice, and Gradenigo its Pericles...

Its decorations and fittings, however, were long in completion; the paintings on the roof being only executed in 1400. They represented the heavens covered with stars, this being, says Sansovino, the bearings of the Doge Steno... The Grand Council sat in the finished chamber for the first time in 1423. In that year the Gothic Ducal Palace of Venice was completed. It had taken, to build it, the energies of the entire period which I have above described as the central one of her life.


I must go back a step or two, in order to be certain that the reader understands clearly the state of the palace in 1423. The works of addition or renovation had now been proceeding, at intervals, during a space of a hundred and twenty-three years. Three generations at least had been accustomed to witness the gradual advancement of the form of the Ducal Palace into more stately symmetry, and to contrast the works of sculpture and painting with which it was decorated,- full of the life, knowledge, and hope of the Fourteenth Century, - with the rude Byzantine chiselling of the palace of the Doge Ziani. The magnificent fabric just completed, of which the new Council Chamber was the nucleus, was now habitually known in Venice as the " Palazzo Nuovo; " and the old Byzantine edifice, now ruinous, and more manifest in its decay by its contrast with the goodly stones of the building which had been raised at its side, was of course known as the " Palazzo Vecchio." That fabric, however, still occupied the principal position in Venice. The new Council Chamber had been erected by the side of it towards the Sea; but there was not the wide quay in front, the Riva dei Schiavoni, which now renders the Sea Facade as important as that of the Piazzetta. There was only a narrow walk between the pillars and the water; and the old palace of Ziani still faced the e Piazzetta, and interrupted, by its decrepitude, the magnificence of the square where the nobles daily met. Every increase of the beauty of the new palace rendered the discrepancy between it and the companion building more painful; and then began to arise in the minds of all men a vague idea of the necessity of destroying the old palace, and completing the front of the Piazzetta with the same splendour as the Sea Facade... The Great Council Chamber was used for the first time on the day when Foscari entered the Senate as Doge,-the 3rd of April, 1423, and the following year, on the 27th of March, thefirst hammer was lifted up against the old palace of Ziani.

That hammer stroke was the first act of the period properly called the " Renaissance." It was the knell of the architecture of Venice,- and of Venice herself...

The whole work must have been completed towards the middle of the Sixteenth Century... But the palace was not long permitted to remain in this finished form. Another terrific fire, commonly called the great fire, burst out in 1574, and destroyed the inner fittings and all the precious pictures of the Great Council Chamber, and of all the upper rooms on the Sea Facade, and most of those on the Rio Facade, leaving the building a mere shell, shaken and blasted by the flames... The repairs necessarily undertaken at this time were however extensive, and interfere in many directions with the earlier work of the palace: still the only serious alteration in its form was the transposition of the prisons, formerly at the top of the palace, to the other side of the Rio del Palazzo; and the building of the Bridge of Sighs, to connect them with the palace, by Antonio da Ponte. The completion of this work brought the whole edifice into its present form...

The traveller in Venice ought to ascend into the corridor, and examine with great care the series of capitals which extend on the Piazzetta side from the Fig-tree angle to the pilaster which carries the party wall of the Sala del Gran Consiglio. As examples of graceful composition in massy capitals meant for hard service and distant effect, these are among the finest things I know in Gothic Art; and that above the fig-tree is remarkable for its sculptures of the four winds; each on the side turned towards the wind represented. Levante, the east wind; a figure with rays round its head, to show that it is always clear weather when that wind blows, raising the sun out of the sea: Hotro, the south wind; crowned, holding the sun in its right hand: Ponente, the west wind; plunging the sun into the sea: and Tramontana, the north wind; looking up at the north star. This capital should be carefully examined, if for no other reason than to attach greater distinctness of idea to the magnificent verbiage of Milton:

"Thwart of these, as fierce,

Forth rush the Levant and the Ponent winds,

Eurus, and Zephyr; with their lateral noise,

Sirocco and Libecchio."

I may also especially point out the bird feeding its three young ones on the seventh pillar on the Piazzetta side; but there is no end to the fantasy of these sculptures; and the traveller ought to observe them all carefully, until he comes to the great pilaster or complicated pier which sustains the party wall of the Sala del Consiglio; that is to say, the forty-seventh capital of the whole series, counting from the pilaster of the Vine angle inclusive, as in the series of the lower arcade. The forty-eighth, forty-ninth, and fiftieth are bad work, but they are old; the fifty-first is the first Renaissance capital of the lower arcade; the first new lion's head with smooth ears, cut in the time of Foscari, is over the fiftieth capital; and that capital, with its shaft, stands on the apex of the eighth arch from the Sea, on the Piazzetta side, of which one spandril is masonry of the Fourteenth and the other of the Fifteenth Century.

I can only say that, in the winter of 1851 the " Paradise " of Tintoret was still comparatively uninjured, and that the Camera di Collegio, and its antechamber, and the Sala de' Pregadi were full of pictures by Veronese and Tintoret, that made their walls as precious as so many kingdoms, so precious indeed, and so full of majesty, that sometimes when walking at evening on the Lido, whence the great chain of the Alps, crested with silver clouds, might be seen rising above the front of the Ducal Palace, I used to feel as much awe in gazing on the building as on the hills, and could believe that God had done a greater work in breathing into the narrowness of dust the mighty spirits by whom its haughty walls had been raised, and its burning legends written, than in lifting the rocks of granite higher than the clouds of heaven, and veiling them with their various mantle of purple flower and shadowy pine.

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