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Rising majestically above the Piazzetta San Marco, this Gothic fantasia of pink-and-white marble is a majestic expression of Venetian prosperity and power. Although the site was the doges' residence from the 10th century, the building began to take its present form around 1340; what you seen now is essentially a product of the first half of the 15th century. It served not only as a residence, but also as the central administrative center of the Venetian Republic.
The Palazzo Ducale took so long to finish that by the time it was completed, around 1450, it was already a bit out of fashion. It barely predates the main gate of the Arsenale, built in 1460 in fully conceived Renaissance classical style. The Venetians, however, even later on, were not disturbed by their palazzo's dated look. In the 1570s the upper floors were destroyed by fire and Palladio submitted an up-to-date design for its reconstruction, but the Venetians refused his offer and insisted on reconstruction "come
era, dove era" (as it was, where it was).
Unlike other medieval seats of authority, the Palazzo Ducale is free of any military defenses—a sign of the Republic's self-confidence. The position of the loggias below instead of above the retaining wall, and the use of pink marble to emphasize the decorative function of that wall, gave the palazzo a light and airy aspect, one that could impress visitors—and even intimidate them, though through opulence and grace rather than fortress-like bulk. Near the basilica you'll see Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon's Gothic Porta della Carta (Gate of the Paper), built between 1438 and 1442, where official decrees were traditionally posted, but you enter the palazzo under the portico facing the water. You'll find yourself in an immense courtyard that holds some of the first evidence of Renaissance architecture in Venice, such as Antonio Rizzo's Scala dei Giganti (Stairway of the Giants), erected between 1483 and 1491, directly ahead, guarded by Sansovino's huge statues of Mars and Neptune, added in 1567. Though ordinary mortals must use the central interior staircase, its upper flight is the lavishly gilded Scala d'Oro (Golden Staircase), also designed by Sansovino in 1555. The palace's sumptuous chambers have walls and ceilings covered with works by Venice's greatest artists. Visit the Anticollegio, a waiting room outside the Collegio's chamber, where you can see the Rape of Europa by Veronese and Tintoretto's Bacchus and Ariadne Crowned by Venus. Veronese also painted the ceiling of the adjacent Sala del Collegio. The ceiling of the Sala del Senato (Senate Chamber), featuring The Triumph of Venice by Tintoretto, is magnificent, but it's dwarfed by his masterpiece Paradise in the Sala del Maggiore Consiglio (Great Council Hall). A vast work commissioned for a vast hall, this dark, dynamic piece is the world's largest oil painting (23 by 75 feet). The room's carved gilt ceiling is breathtaking, especially with Veronese's majestic Apotheosis of Venice filling one of the center panels. Around the upper walls, study the portraits of the first 76 doges, and you'll notice one picture is missing near the left corner of the wall opposite Paradise. A black painted curtain, rather than a portrait, marks Doge Marin Falier's fall from grace; he was beheaded for treason in 1355, which the Latin inscription bluntly explains.
A narrow canal separates the palace's east side from the cramped cell blocks of the Prigioni Nuove (New Prisons). High above the water arches the enclosed marble Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), which earned its name in the 19th century, from Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage." Reserve your spot for the palazzo's popular Secret Itineraries tour well in advance. You'll visit the doge's private apartments, through hidden passageways to the interrogation (torture) chambers, and into the rooftop piombi (lead) prison, named for its lead roofing. Venetian-born writer and libertine Giacomo Casanova (1725–98), along with an accomplice, managed to escape from the piombi in 1756; they were the only men ever to do so.
Piazzetta San Marco, Venice, Veneto, 30124, Italy
041-2715911; 041-5209070-Secret Itineraries tour