Venice Explorer: The Doge’s Palace

exterior of gothic doge palace in venice

In today’s edition of American Nomad, we’re continuing our tour of Venice with a stop at the gorgeous Palazzo Ducale, which is located just off St. Mark’s Square

The Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale was the seat of Venetian government. Venice as known as the ‘Most Serene Republic,’ as it ws self-governed by officials and run symbolically by a Doge, which was similar to a constitutional monarch. It would take an entire lecture to get into the depths of this unique and mixed constitutional monarcy meets ‘elected democracy…’ so for the sake of time I’ll bullet point the highlights and provide resources where you can learn more about the 1100 Serene Republic of Venice

  • What is a Doge?
    • The Doge was the chief magistrate and leader of the Republic of Venice between 726 to 1797. While the role shifted slightly over the years, for the most part Doges were elected for life by the Venetian nobility. They didn’t have power but were overseers and designed to be humble to the state You often see them kneeling before St. Mark. They were sometimes called Sua Serenita – His Serenity
  • What was the Full College: Main executive body of the Republic of Venice, overseeing day-to-day governance and preparing the agenda for the Venetian Senate.
  • What was the Venetian Senate?
    • Legislative body of Venetian government
  • What was the Council of Ten:
    • From 1310 to 1797 was one of the major governing bodies of the Republic of Venice. Elections took place annually and the Council of Ten had the power to impose punishments upon nobles. They also were involved in matters of state security

The Doge lived in the Palazzo Ducale in fairly humble quarters to reflect service to the state. However the rest of the palace is a feast for the eyes – showcasing one of the most gorgeous buildings in Venice, along with masterworks by artists and sculptors like Tintoretto and Sansovino

  • I’ll be doing a course soon on my sister site Art Expeditions, where we’ll dive into Venetian art and architecture including the magnificent masterworks at The Doge’s Palace (April 2023)

Getting there:

  • You can take a vaporetto from the Grand Canal entrance or walk to the palace from St. Mark’s Square
  • Tickets and entry information can be found here.

Let’s start our mini-tour!

The Exterior:

The Exterior of the Palazzo Ducale is arguably one of the most beautiful and recongizable buildings in all of Italy given its unique Venetian Gothic architecture.

  • Venetian Gothic is a mix of Italian Gothic as well as international influences including Arabesque-Islamic architecture
  • The current structure dates to the 14th-15th centuries and is nicknamed ‘The Wedding Cake’ and ‘Pink House’ because it’s architecture is designed to be sophiscated and delicate. The mix of pink Verona marble patterns create an intricate design that looks almost like a mosaic.
  • Unlike the massive fortress palaces of other Italian cities, The Ducal Palace is right on the water and has no fortification – as if the doge is saying “I am elected and we are strong in peace”
  • The second floor has the appearance of being light and not weighed down – it’s surface almost lacy in design with gorgeous Gothic Arched windows and Arabseque influenced adornments.
  • Carved capitals and sculputres decorate the facades overlooking the Grand Canal and Piazzetta (which connects to St. Mark’s Square)
I took this picture on my trip to Venice. The palace had a little construction work being done. You can see the gorgeous windows and details.

The Porta Della Carta

  • In the photo above,, you can see the Porta della Carta in between The Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s. Given Aqua Alta (high water) and construction I could not get upclose, but you can get a feel for the space.
  • Designed by brothers Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon…the Porta della Carta or ‘Paper Gate’ was once the primary entrance for the Doge
    • The name ‘Paper Gate’ comes from the people who waited by the gate to hand petitions (in paper) to members of the council
  •  The gate leads into the large central courtyard through The Foscari Arch, which features statues of Adam and Eve by Antonio Rizzo

The Stairway of the Giants

Credit Royal Trust – archival photo
  • In the courtyard by the stairway of the giants you’re surrounded by buildings that were home to Venice’s ruling cass
  • The Stairway of the Giants was designed by Antonio Rizzo and LEADS to the State Apartments on the Upper floor
  • On each side of the staircase is a statue: Neptune and Mars – to show Venice’s power over land and sea.
    • The statues were carved by Sansovino in 1567
  • The spot between the statues is where:
    • Doges were crowned (or one time beheaded – Doge Faliero)
    • foreign dignataries and other visitors walked through to enter the palace
  • In this area you can also find the ‘Mouth of Truth’ or a fierce-looking bronze letter box that has a mans face with a ‘mouth’ for letters. Anyone who had a complaint or suspicion about anyone else could accuse him anonymously here by putting the slip of paper in the mouth.
    • Bear in mind though – if you were cause falsely accusing an innocent person you would be penalized!

Scala d’Oro – Golden Staircase:

  • The palace was intended to impress foreign dignitaries and show the power of the Venetian state. Before reaching the rest of the palaces, foreign leaders who have to climb this ornate staircase with a 24-karat gold ceiling
  • The staircase was designed by Sansovino and Scarpagnino

Doge’s Apartments:

  • At the top of the steps you’ll enter the Doge’s Apartments
    • Around a dozen rooms on the first floor where the doge actually lived
    • Despite his high office, The Doge was a prisoner of sorts in the palace. He couldn’t leave the palace unescorted and he couldn’t open official mail in private. He and his family could not live in their own home so it could be a bit taxing on Doge’s and their families.
  • Highlights include maps from The Venetian Republic including Venice native, Marco Polo’s trip across
  • There is also a famous picture of St. Mark by Carpaccio

Sala del Collegio

One of the most breathtaking rooms in the palace, this is where The Cabinet met under the chairmanship of the Doge and the Repbulic received important visitors

  • includes a large 1578 Veronese painting as the Doge gives thanks for vicotry over the Turks in the important Battle of Lepanto
  • this room also features additional paitings by Veronese and Tintoretto

Sala del Senato

This is where some 120 senators met to pass legislation

  • Tintoretto’s Triump of Venice is on the ceiling. Lady Venice is up in heaven with the Greek gods, while “barbaric lesser nations” give her gifts
    • Allegorical paintings like this where Classical is melded with faith and virtues became popular in the Renaissance and beyond

Hall of the Council of Ten:

  • The dreaded spot where the 10 judges and the doge and his six advisers met to dole out punishments to traitors, murders and morals violators.
  • Venice was known for swift, harse and secret justice (albeit a bit fair within the tortures of the day)
  • The Bridge of Sighs and Jail were tied to ‘The Council of Ten’
  • You can access The Armory Museum from here.

The Hall of Great Council:

The Most Serene Republic demanded this large 175 by 80 foot space for large diplomatic meetings and events. One highlight was the dinner honoring France’s Henry III, which included all gold and spun sugar tableware!

  • For art lovers this room is a must stop. It includes the magnificent Paradise by Tintoretto, which fills an entire wall and is the world’s largest oil painting.

The Final Stop…Gulp…The Prisons

I personally get a bit nauseous when I visit prisons like this imagining what people when through. That being said you’ll learn a lot of history and can be grateful that you don’t have to be locked up when the acqua alta hits the lower cells.

  • One famed prisoner, Casanova also was one of the few to actually escape.

As you leave The Ducal Palace you must stop outside for that picture perfect moment in front of The Bridge of Sighs.

Originally just a prisoner’s bridge, Lord Byron renamed it ‘Brige of Sighs’ as that would be last moment of light the prisoners would see en route to their fate. ‘Sigh.’

a gondola approaching the bridge of sighs
Photo by Bianca Galon on

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American Nomad is written by travel enthusiast and art history lover Adele L. When she is not traveling, she works in tech sales and enjoys painting (purchase her work here) and is the published author of ‘Solitude Lake’ – a cozy romance by Adele Darcy (Amazon)

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