The Dodge Palace blinded us with its outside whiteness and almost knocked down with dark and lavish interiors. Richly decorated Doge’s Apartments, Scarlet Chamber, the Scudo and Stucchi Rooms and the Council and Senate Chambers took our breaths away. I looked up at the incredible celling in the Chamber of the Great Council and felt like the smallest person in the world, literally overwhelmed by the sumptuousness surrounding us. The celling reminded me of Vatican Museum’s Editori Corridors with its beautifully painted and decorated walls glowing in gold, but the Chamber of the Great Council was much much bigger.
The Courtyard was huge as well, guarded by Piazzetta wing to the left and the Renaissance wing to the right. On the north side you could see closure created by junction between the Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica. In the middle of the courtyard stood two 16-century well-heads and two huge statues of Mars and Neptune, representing power by the land and the sea, guarded immense staircase (Scala dei Giganti) leading inside to unfold incredible interiors to its visitors.
The palace is situated on the eastern edge of Piazza San Marco and faces the Canal of San Marco with its white and lace-like façade, the oldest outside part of the palace, dating 14th century. Linked with St Mark’s Basilica the Dodge Palace was literally everything people who ruled the Venetian Empire would need –the living quarters for the Dodge and the governor and the most impressive place to accept visitors. Apart from that the dungeons were used as prison cells.
It history starts in 810 when the seat of the government was moved from the island of Malamocco to the area of future incredible city on water. The first palace was built then but sadly it was completely destroyed by a fire a century later. In 12th century Doge Sebastiano Ziani brought forward the idea of changing the whole layout of St. Mark’s Square and built a new palace overlooking the Piazzeta and the St. Mark’s Basin. But even his incredible work was destroyed in 13th century – the number of the Great Council’s members grew and the need to accommodate them was urgent. This time the inspiration for a new construction came from Gothic architecture and in 1424 the building was extended by the wing overlooking the Piazzetta.
The Palace was unfortunately destroyed by another fire in 1483, which devastating force crashed the side overlooking the canal, including Doge’s apartments. As a result a new structure was raised alongside the canal inspired by Renaissance architecture style this time.
There were two more fires striking later on in 16th century, destroying some of the rooms on a second floor and the Scrutinio Room, the Great Council Chamber, together with works by Gentile da Fabriano, Pisanello, Alvise Vivarini, Vittore Carpaccio, Giovanni Bellini, Pordenone, and Titian. In the process of rebuilding it was decided to keep the original Gothic style and it was the right decision, as you can see today. The end of 19th century brought further decay to the structure and the Italian government decided to set aside some funds to help with restoration of the building and since 1923 The Doge Palace serves as a museum for all of us to enjoy its beauty.
Apart from lavishly beautiful interiors and richly decorated with fine art walls there is a dark side to the palace. It all started in the 12th century when the prison was established within the Doge Palace. The first cells were dark, cold and wet – this ground floor prison was named Pozzi (the Wells) because of the extremely hard conditions the prisoners had to face daily. In 1591 more cells were built in the eastern wing, directly under the lead roof, and the new prison was named Piombi (Leads). The new cells were more airy and spacious so the prisoners’ conditions were improved. At this time the Bridge of Sighs was built as well to link new prison with the Doge Palace.
The Bridge is an example of one of the classical features gradually added in the 16th century. Bridge of Sighs (Ponte de Sospiri) was linking the Doge’s Palace to the structure intended to house New Prisons. The bridge is closed, containing two corridors, one is linking the prison to the chambers of the Magistrato alle Leggi (this is the corridor you are able to access today as a visitor) and the other leads to the State Advocacy rooms and the Parlatorio. Both corridors were linked to the staircase leading from the ground floor cells of the Pozzi to the roof cells of the Piombi.
There is a small window through which the prisoners could steal the last look at a free world before being showed to deal with their fate in a cell. The bridge’s corridors are small and narrow, there is not much space for you to go through and the small window is not giving up much of a view across San Giorgio. But I would imagine that this last sight was precious to someone who needed to face many days without looking at the sky again and smelling fresh air – even though Venice started straggling with the sanitary conditions more than any other place at that time and the fresh air was not at all common.
After wandering with our heads uplifted all the time to be able to take on beautiful interiors, we have found ourselves wandering the corridors of the Pozzi, looking at wet, small and dark cells of the old prison, keeping our heads down. In the dungeons, with not much sun and pervasive cold, the life could not be easy. The cells were really small, nothing in them apart from the walls, celling and floor, with a bank bed and dreams of freedom. The labyrinth of small corridors made me lose my tracks quickly and I could not imagine how depressive it must have been for the prisoner, led by the guard to the place of the final destination. The Doge Palace has two faces for sure – the rich and the poor – where rich is jolly, beautiful and happy and poor is sad, cold and tragic. Looking at the lavish interiors and coming down later on to visit bare walls of the Pozzi prison made me realize how lucky I am to be born now with endless opportunities to live like I chose to.
For up to date information about opening times and the cost of the ticket go here.