“Gothic style 14th century Palace fit for a king, in prime location with South facing unobstructed lagoon view. Amenities include the world’s largest pillar less hall, secret court rooms, torture chamber and private jail.”
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In this fake real estate listing a few important facts remained undisclosed: fire damaged multiple times, perpetually in the need of repair and a flood prone moldy basement. Luckily for the tens of thousands of tourists streaming through the doors of the Doges Palace or Palazzo Ducale in Italian or Pałaso Dogal if you are Venetian it was never up for sale.
Founded on a plot selected in the 9th it would take at least three fires, rebuilds and additions until the 16th century before the Palace got its current good looks. To get beyond the façade a walk along the covered walkway from St Mark’s square and around the corner on the lagoons side leads to the entrance. There at the Porta del Frumento (Wheat gate in English) is the ticket office.
Behind the scenes
With a ticket to one of the worst kept secrets in Venice, the openly advertised “Secret itinerary tour” the group assemble under the loggia inside the gate. The tour is only offered with a guide (in Italian, English or French) to take visitors beyond the palatial rooms and into the inner workings and seedier side of the Venetian Republic. The guide meet up and point out the two wells in the center of the yard and the “Giants” staircase at the far end before heading for the door.
First the (luckily) small group is taken through a narrow door and down a stairs into the “Wells” (Pozzi). The low point is a row of dark prison cells where canal water seep in at high tide and from which there was no escape. From then on it is up via stairs into the sparse office of the notary. Then follows the Office of the Great Chancellor an elected official once paid well enough to avoid temptations of bribery. Much of the secrets of the inner workings of the Republic were documented and stored in the Secret Chancelleries chamber lined with cabinets under lock and key.
Perhaps some of those entering the “Chamber of Torment” had disclosed just such secrets. From a group of cells lining the wall prisoners were forced to listen to the screams of the one of them being tortured by hanging by the arms from a rope suspended from the high ceiling. Death was not intentionally inflicted but the screams of pain were meant to incentivize other prisoners to spill the beans. From there the tour continues to the “Piombi” (lead in Italian) cells so named after the lead plate roofing material above. A collection of arms is on display in one room and in another the mechanism for the hanging ceiling of the Chamber of the Great Council can be seen from above.
Locked up lover
As interesting as this may seem the reasons we are here are neither armaments nor building mastery but the pursuit of love. Synonymous with it Giacomo Casanova was accused of an affront to religion and one too many amorous pursuits. However as he was of some wealth and had contacts he avoided the basement Pozzi and instead had to contend with “millions of fleas” and occasional cellmates in the Piombi under a roof where he could not stand straight. Sentenced to five years in prison he attempted his first flight. During an apparently poorly supervised exercise walk outside his cell he found a metal rod and a piece of marble which he used to sharpen the metal into a spike. With the spike he set out to carve a hole in the wooden floor under his cell bed. However just three days before his planned escape he was to his own dismay suddenly transferred to a bigger and brighter cell. This the luck for art lovers as otherwise the priceless Tintoretto canvas in the ceiling of the Inquisitors chamber would have been ripped to shreds as Casanova ascended straight through it.
The second time around he did succeed in cohorts with the rebel priest Balbi. The clergyman used the same metal spike, smuggled to him in a large plate of pasta, to carve a hole in the ceiling above his own cell to then crawl over to do the same in Casanova’s. The two then climbed out on the Palace roof to hoist themselves down a few flights with a rope of tied together bedlinen. The climbed through another window and walked through the Palace and out through the door after convincing the guards thatthey had been left behind at the end of a party. At least this is how the story is told by Casanova himself thirty years later in “The Story of My Flight”
The secret tour ends in the Inquisitors chamber for a glimpse of the saved Tintoretto before coming out literally through the woodwork in the room of four doors. From then on it is one opulent reception and meeting room after another which are also a part of an ordinary museum visit.
Having a say
The Council chamber leads into the Senate where additional Tintorettos imply their higher powers of having the final say in the selection of a new Doge after initial votes by the Great Council. Other kinds of power can be seen in the Armory on the same floor. However it is one flight down via the Golden stairs that the largest body of Venice met.
Every man 25 or over from a patrician Venetian family had by default a seat on the Great Council. The number of council members varied from 1200-2000 and they needed the meeting room to match. Every Sunday when the bells of St Marks rang out they assembled in what is still one of the largest rooms in Europe the size of five tennis courts (53×25 meters) to council and keep other elected bodies in check. Surrounded by paintings of Venetian history and under the ceiling depicting heroism they voted in a lengthy and complicated procedure in the pre-stages of the selection of new Doges. It was also here the Venetian Republic came to an end in 1797 when the council even without the required quorum of 600 members voted to end of the republic as Napoleon Bonaparte’s forces stood by the door.
The opulence and masterpieces of the upper floors stand in stark contrast to the cold and damp that met convicted Venetians. As there was a need for more modern cells beyond the Pozzi and Piombi a new prison was commissioned. However the only space available was across the canal. A covered bridge was needed and not just any bridge but the “Bridge of Sighs” named so after the sound many prisoners let out as they peaked through one of the small square windows overlooking the lagoon before being locked up down in the darkness and cold of the jail. Today the bridge is crossed at will by scores of tourists. With such an experience in mind it is liberating to walk out of the palace ready to take in more of “La Serenissima”.
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