The best known sight in Venice, the 15th-century Doge’s (or Ducal) Palace, or the Palazzo Ducale (as the locals know it), is an impressive building in pink and white marble. Arched colonnades, prettily rounded windows, and abundant carving decorate the palace, which was once the stronghold of not just the Doge (who had anyway become a mere figurehead in later centuries), but of the oligarchic Council of Ten.
We bought our entry tickets (€12 per person, less if you’re a student, a senior citizen, or part of a group) and entered the massive courtyard at the centre of the palace. Here, the major sight is the Giant Staircase, a structure named for the two massive marble figures that stand atop it on either side. The staircase was used exclusively for the Doge’s inaugurations.
We then made our way to the starting point of the Palazzo Ducale tour, the Golden Staircase. Vividly decorated in gilt and stucco, the staircase led us up to a corridor overlooking the courtyard. Studded in the wall of this corridor is the infamous Bocca dei Leoni (`Lion’s Mouth’), in which Venetians could drop anonymous letters denouncing fellow citizens. The Lion’s Mouth was once symbolic of the intrigue that was so much a part of Venice; today it’s blocked up with a piece of metal.
The trail next led through a series of rooms: the Doge’s Apartments and the Institutional Chambers (used by the Council of ten for judicial and legislative purposes) came first. Each of these chambers is splendidly decorated, with intricately carved and gilded wooden ceilings, and loads of paintings by some of the most famous painters of Venice- Veronese, Bellini, Tintoretto, and Bassano among them. The pictures run the gamut of subjects: there are Biblical scenes, depictions of battle, scenes from mythology (The Rape of Europa by Veronese being one of the most famous) and, as you’d probably expect, plenty of portraits of the rich and famous of Venice. The Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Great Council Hall) has a continuous panel of paintings (by Tintoretto, whose Paradiso, probably the world’s largest oil painting, is also here) depicting each of the 76 Doges of Venice. Or all except one, whose painting was summarily blacked out after he was found guilty of treason.
Beyond these luxurious apartments and offices lies the Armoury. It’s crowded with swords, shields, pikes, muskets, pistols, helmets, armour and other weaponry, all well-polished and dangerous. From the Armoury, the route moves on, over the famous Ponte Dei Sospiri (The `Bridge of Sighs’), to the graffiti-covered cells of the Prison. The Prison’s interiors are very grim and bare, and one can well imagine the despair that gripped most inmates- including perhaps Casanova, who was one of the few who succeeded in escaping!
The route leads back, again over the Ponte Dei Sospiri, to the Palazzo Ducale, where it ends.
In the final analysis, I’d say the €12 is money well spent: the palace is spectacular, the history engrossing, and the art of the finest.