The Ducal Palace at Venice. The Palace of the Doges.

The Doge’s Palace in Venice was the seat of the Doge and the governing and judicial organs of the Republic of Venice from the 9th century onwards. The palace was the governmental and administrative centre of the Republic and at the same time a symbol of the greatness and power of the Maritime Republic of Venice.

Ducal, Palace, Venice, Italy, Doge, Architecture, Théophile Gautier
The Ducal Palace



THE Ducal Palace (Palazzo Ducale) as we see it to-day dates from Marino Faliero and is the successor of an older one begun in 809 under Angelo Participazio and carried on by the different Doges. It was Marino Faliero who caused the two facades on the Mole and the Piazzetta to be built in 1355 as they now are. This construction brought happiness neither to him who ordered nor to the architect: the former was decapitated and the latter hanged.

Into this strange edifice, — at once a palace, senate, tribunal and prison under the government of the Republic, — we enter by a charming door in St. Mark’s corner, between the pillars of St. John of Acre and the great, thick column supporting the entire weight of the immense white and rose marble wall that gives such an original aspect to the ancient palace of the Doges.

This door, called Della Carta, is in charming architectural taste, adorned with little columns, trefoils and statues, without counting the inevitable, indispensable winged lion of St. Mark, and leads into the great interior court by a vaulted passage. This somewhat singular arrangement of an entrance so to speak placed without the edifice to which it leads has the advantage of not interfering in any 9 way with the unity of the façades, which are not broken by any projection except that of their monumental windows.

Before passing under the arcade, let us glance over the exterior of the palace to note a few of its interesting details. Above the thick and robust column of which we have just spoken, there is a bas-relief of savage aspect representing the Judgment of Solomon, with mediæval costume and a certain barbarity of execution that renders it hard to recognise the subject. This bas-relief opens into the long twisted little columns that cordon each angle of the building.

On the façade of the Piazzetta, up on the second gallery, two columns of red marble mark the place whence the death sentences were read, — a custom that still exists to-day. All the capitals are in exquisite taste and inexhaustible variety. Not one is a repetition. They contain chimæræ, children, angels, fantastic animals, and sometimes Biblical or historical subjects, mingled with foliage, acanthus, fruits and flowers that forcibly show up the poverty of invention of our modern artists: several bear half effaced inscriptions in Gothic characters, which in order to be fluently read would require a skilful palaeographer. There are twenty-seven arcades on the Mole and eighteen on the Piazzetta.

The Porta della Carta leads you to the Giant’s Staircase, which is not itself gigantic, but takes its name from the two colossi of Neptune and Mars, a dozen feet in height, by Sansovino , standing on pedestals at the top of the flight. This staircase, leading from the courtyard to the second gallery that decks the interior as well as the exterior of the palace, was raised during the dogedom of Agostino Barbarigo (1486-1501) by Antonio Rizzio. It is of white marble, decorated by Domenico and Bernardo of Mantua with arabesques and trophies in very slight relief, but of such perfection as to be the despair of all the ornamenters, carvers and engravers in the world. It is no longer architecture, but goldsmith’s work, such as Benvenuto Cellini and Vechte alone could produce. Every morsel of this open balustrade is a world of invention; the weapons and casques of every bas-relief, each one different, are of the rarest fancy and the purest style; even the slabs of the steps are ornamented with exquisite niello, and yet who knows anything of Domenico and Bernardo of Mantua? The memory of mankind, already wearied with a hundred illustrious names, refuses to retain any more, and consigns to oblivion names that are deserving of all glory.

If we turn around on reaching the head of this staircase, we see the inner side of the doorway of Bartolomeo, flowered over with volutes and plated with little columns and statues, with remnants of blue painting starred with gold in the tympanums of the arch. Among the statues, one in particular is very remarkable: it is an Eve by Antonio Rizzio of Verona, carved in 1471. The other side, facing the Wells, was built in 1607 in the style of the Renaissance, with columns and niches full of antique statues from Greece, representing warriors, orators, and divinities. A clock and a statue of the Duke Urbino, carved by Gio Bandini of Florence in 1625, complete this severe and classic front.

Letting your glance fall towards the middle of the court, you see what look like magnificent bronze altars. They are the mouths of the cisterns of Nicolo de’ Conti and Francesco Alberghetti. The first dates from 1556, the second from 1559. Both are masterpieces. Besides the obligatory accompaniment of griffins, sirens, and chimæræ, various aquatic subjects taken from the Scriptures are represented in them. Once could not imagine such richness of invention, such exquisite taste, such perfection of carving, nor such finished work as is displayed by the kerbs of these wells enriched with the polish and verdigris of time. Even the inside of the mouth is plated with thin sheets of bronze branched with a damascene of arabesques. These two wells are said to contain the best water in Venice.

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Near the Giant’s Staircase is an inscription framed with ornaments and figures by Alessandro Vittoria recalling the passage of Henry III. through Venice; and farther on in the gallery at the approach to the golden staircase are two statues by Antonio Aspetti, — Hercules and Atlas bending beneath the starry firmament, the weight of which the mighty hero is about to transfer to his own bull-neck. This magnificent staircase, adorned with stuccos by Vittoria and paintings by Giambatista, is by Sansovino, and leads to the library which now occupies several rooms of the Palace of the Doges. To attempt to describe them one by one would be a work of patience and erudition that would require a whole volume.

The old hall of the Grand Council is one of the largest 12 you could find anywhere. The Court of Lions at the Alhambra would easily go inside it. On entering, you stand still, struck with astonishment. By an effect that is somewhat frequently found in architecture, this hall looks much larger than the building that contains it. A sombre and severe wainscoting, where bookcases have taken the place of the seats of the old senators, serves as a plinth for immense paintings that extend all around the walls, broken only by windows, below a line of portraits of the Doges and a colossal gilded ceiling of incredible exuberance of ornamentation, with great compartments, square, octagonal and oval, with foliage, volutes, and rock-work in a taste scarcely appropriate to the style of the palace, but so imposing and magnificent that you are quite dazzled by it. Unfortunately, the pictures by Paul Veronese, Tintorettoto, Palma the Younger, and other great masters, that filled these superb frames have now been removed on account of indispensable repairs.

That side of the hall by which you enter is entirely occupied by a gigantic Paradise by Tintorettoto, which contains a world of figures. It is a strong painting and it is a pity that time has so greatly darkened it. The smoky shadows that cover it belong to a Hell rather than to a Glory. Behind this canvas, a fact that we have not been in a position to verify, it is said that there is an ancient Paradise painted in green camaïeu upon the wall by Guariento of Padua in 1365. It would be curious to be able to compare this green Paradise with the black one. It is only Venice that has one depth of painting below another.

This hall is a kind of Versailles museum of Venetian history, with the difference that if the exploits are not so great, the painting is far better. It is impossible to imagine a more wonderful effect than is produced by this immense hall entirely covered by these pompous paintings that excel in the Venetian genius. Above these great historical scenes, is a row of portraits of the Doges by Tintorettoto, Bassano, and other painters; as a rule, they have a smoky and bearded appearance, although, contrary to the impression we form, they have no beards. In one corner the eye is arrested at an empty and black frame that makes a hole as dark as a tomb in this chronological gallery. It is the space that should be occupied by the portrait of Marino Faliero, as told by this inscription: Locus Marini Phaletri, decapitati pro criminibus.

All the effigies of Marino Faliero were also destroyed, so that his portrait may be said to be undiscoverable. However, it is pretended that there is one in the possession of an amateur at Verona. The republic wanted to destroy the memory of this haughty old man who brought it within an inch of ruin in revenge for a youth’s jest that was sufficiently punished by a few months’ imprisonment. To finish with Marino Faliero, let us note that he was not beheaded at the head of the Giant’s staircase, as is represented in several prints, since that stairway was not built till a hundred and fifty years later, but in the opposite corner at the other end of the gallery, upon the top of a flight of steps since demolished.

We will now name the most celebrated chambers of the palace without pretending to describe them in detail. In the chamber dei Scarlatti, the chimney-piece is covered with marble reliefs of the finest workmanship. On the impost also is seen a very curious bas-relief in marble representing the Doge Loredan on his knees before the Virgin and Child, accompanied by several saints, — an admirable piece of work by an unknown artist. The Hall of the Shield: here the arms of the living Doge were emblazoned. It is hung with geographical charts by the Abbé Grisellini that trace the discoveries of Marco Polo, so long treated as fabulous, and of other illustrious Venetian travellers, such as Zeni and Cabota. Here also is kept a globe, found on a Turkish galley, engraved upon wood and of strange configuration being in accordance with Oriental ideas and covered with Arabic characters cut with marvellous delicacy; also a great bird’s-eye view of Venice by Albrecht Dürer, who made a long stay in the city of the Doges. The aspect of the city is generally the same as to-day, since for three centuries one stone has not been laid upon another in the Italian cities.

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In the Hall of the Philosophers, a very beautiful chimney-piece by Pierre Lombard is to be noticed. The Hall of Stuccos, so called because of its ornamentation, contains paintings by Salviati, Pordenone, and Bassano: the Virgin, a Descent from the Cross, and the Nativity of Jesus Christ. The banquet-hall is where the Doge used to give certain feasts of etiquette, — diplomatic dinners, as we should say to-day. Here we see a portrait of Henry III. by Tintoretto, very strong and very fine; and facing the door is the Adoration of the Magi, a warm painting by Bonifazio, that great master of whose work we possess scarcely anything in Paris.

The Hall of the Four Doors has a square anteroom, the ceiling of which, painted by Tintoretto, represents Justice giving the sword and scales to the Doge Priuli. The four doors are adorned with statues of grand form by Guilio del Moro, Francesco Caselli, Girolamo Campagna, and Alessandro Vittoria; the paintings that enrich the room are masterpieces.

From this hall let us pass into the Anti-Collegio; it is the waiting-room of the ambassadors, the architecture being by Scamozzi. The envoys of the various powers who came to present their credentials to the Most Serene Republic could scarcely have been in a hurry to be introduced: the masterpieces crowded with such lavishness into this splendid anteroom would induce anyone to be patient. The four pictures near the door are by Tintoretto, and among his best. These are the subjects: Mercury and the Graces; Vulcan’s Forge; Pallas, accompanied by Joy and Abundance, chasing Mars; and Ariadne consoled by Bacchus. Apart from a few rather forced fore shortenings and a few violent attitudes in which this master took pleasure on account of their difficulty, we can do nothing but praise the virile energy of touch, the warmth of colour, the truth of the flesh, the lifelike power and that forceful and charming grace that distinguishes mighty talents when they have to render sweet and gentle subjects.

But the marvel of this sanctuary of art is the Rape of Europa, by Paul Veronese. What lovely white shoulders! what blonde curling tresses! what round and charming arms! what smiles of eternal youth in this wonderful canvas in which Paul Veronese seems to have spoken his final word! Sky, clouds, trees, flowers, meadows, seas, tints, draperies, all seem bathed in the glow of an unknown Elysium. If we had to choose one single example of all Paul Veronese’s work, this is the one we should prefer: it is the most beautiful pearl in this rich casket.

On the ceiling the great artist has seated his dear Venice on a golden throne with that amplitude of drapery and that abundant grace of which he possesses the secret. For this Assumption in which Venice takes the place of the Virgin, he always knows how to find fresh blues and new radiance.

The magnificent chimney-piece by Aspetti, a stucco cornice by Vittoria and Bombarda, blue camaïeu, by Sebastian Rizzi and columns of verde antique and Cipolin marble framing the door complete this marvellous decoration in which shines the most beautiful of all luxuries, — that of genius.

The reception-hall, or the Collegio, comes next. Here we find Tintoretto and Paul Veronese, the former red and violent, the other azure and calm; the first, suited to great expanses of wall, the second, for immense ceilings. We will not speak of the camaïeu, the grisailles, the column of verde antique, the little arches of flowered jasper and sculptures by G. Campagna: we should never finish; and those are the ordinary sumptuous details in the Palace of Doges.

There are many other admirable rooms in the Ducal Palace that we have not mentioned. The Hall of the Council of Ten, the Hall of the Supreme Council, the Hall of the State Inquisitors, and many others. Upon their walls and ceilings sit side by side the apotheosis of Venice and the Assumption of the Virgin; the Doges on their knees before some Madonna or other; and mythological heroes or fabulous gods; the Lion of St. Mark and Jupiter’s Eagle; the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and a Neptune; Pope Alexander III. and a short-kilted Allegory. Mix up stories from the Bible and holy Virgins beneath baldaquins, captures of Zara embroidered with more numerous episodes than one of Ariosto’s songs , and surprises of Candia with jumbles of Turks: carve the door-cases; cover the cornices with mouldings and stucco; set up statues in every corner; lay gold upon everything that is not covered by the brush of a superior artist; say: “All those who have laboured here, even the obscure, had twenty times as much talent as our celebrities of the present day; and the greatest masters have employed their lives here;” and then you will have a feeble idea of all this magnificence that defies description. Painters, whose names are not uttered once a century, here hold their place in most terrible proximities. You would say that genius was in the air at that climacteric epoch of human progress and that nothing was easier than to produce masterpieces. The sculptors especially, of whom no one ever speaks, display an extraordinary talent and are not in the least inferior to the greatest painters.

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Close to the door of one of these rooms we still see, though robbed of all its prestige of terror, and reduced to the condition of an unused letter-box, the ancient Lion’s Mouth to which the informers came to cast in their denunciations. Nothing remains now but a hole in the wall: the jaw has been removed. A sombre corridor leads you to the Hall of the State Inquisitors, to the Leads, and to the Wells that have served as a text for an infinity of sentimental declamation. Certainly there are not beautiful prisons; but the truth is that the Leads were large chambers covered with lead, a material with which the roofs of most of the edifices of Venice are covered and which has nothing particularly cruel about it; and that the Wells were not below the level of the lagoon. We visited two or three of these cells. Covered with wood on the inside, they had a low door and a little opening facing the lamp fixed to the roof of the passage. A wooden camp-bed occupied one of the corners.

It was black and stifling, but without any melodramatic accessories. Upon the walls are decipherable several of those inscriptions that prison weariness engraves with a nail upon the wall of the tomb: signatures, dates, short sentences from the Bible, philosophical reflections appropriate to the spot, a timid sigh for liberty, sometimes the cause of the imprisonment, such as the inscription in which a captive says that he has been incarcerated for sacrilege. At the entrance to a corridor they showed us a stone seat on which those who were secretly executed in the prison were made to sit. A slender cord cast around the neck and twisted like a garotte strangled them in the Turkish manner. These clandestine executions were only for state prisoners convicted of political crimes. The deed being done, the corpse was bundled into a gondola through a door opening on to the Canal della Paglia and it was taken away to be sunk with a cannon-ball or stone at the feet in the Orfanello Canal which is very deep and where fishermen are forbidden to cast their nets.

Vulgar assassins are executed between the two columns at the entrance of the Piazzetta. The Bridge of Sighs, which seen from the Paille Bridge, looks like a cenotaph suspended over the water, has nothing remarkable inside: it is a double corridor divided by a wall which serves as a covered way from the Ducal Palace to the Prison, the severe and solid edifice built by Antonio da Ponte, and situated on the other side of the Canal facing the lateral façade of the Palace which is supposed to have been built from the plans of Antonio Riccio. The name of the Bridge of Sighs, given to that tomb that connects two prisons, probably comes from the lamentations of the unfortunates going from their cell to the tribunal and back again, broken by torture, or in despair after condemnation. In the evening this Canal, squeezed between the high walls of the two sombre edifices and illumined by some rare gleam, has a very sinister and mysterious aspect, and the gondolas that glide along there bearing some handsome pair of lovers going to get a little fresh air on the lagoon, look as if they have a burden for the Orfanello Canal.

We have also visited the ancient apartments of the Doge; nothing remains of their primitive magnificence except a highly ornamental ceiling divided into gilded and painted hexagonal compartments. In these spaces, shielded by foliage and rosebushes, was an invisible hole through which the State Inquisitors and the members of the Council of Ten could spy upon what the Doge was doing at all hours of the day and of the night. The walls, not content with listening by an ear, like the prison of Denys the Tyrant, watched with an ever open eye, and the Doge who had conquered at Zara or at Candia heard, like Angelo, “steps in his walls” and felt a mysterious and jealous watch all about him.

Source: Romantic castles and palaces as seen and described by famous writers by Esther Singleton. New York, Dodd, 1911.

illustration, goat


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