The Doges (Dukes) of Venice were very sure of themselves. They didn't hide behind ramparts and battlements like most medieval rulers. Their great palace - the Palazzo Ducale - is a light, delicate airy building which is bold and confident, challenging the world to ransack Venice and storm the Piazzetta. Of course they knew that would never happen. Venice was near impregnable hiding in its little lagoon. Whenever the republic was threatened it simply moved the guidance mooring posts and invading ships ran aground.
It enabled the Doges to build, in my mind, one of the most beautiful buildings in Europe and where they ruled 'La Serenissima' for a thousand years. The Palazzo truly is a wonder and should be high on your agenda on a visit to Venice. The view from its windows across the Bacino to Chiesa Salute and Isola Maggiore has to be one of the best in the world.
The Doges of Venice were unique in Europe. Not related to any royal family, they were elected by their fellow Venetians. But this was no democracy, you only got to vote if your patrician family was in the Libra D'Oro (golden book) which housed the names of the top noble families in the city. He was elected for life and sat in the major councils of state. And the Palazzo itself which was built in 1411 reflects his power as well as being the seat of it's judicial systems, prisons, governing council and law courts. Life didn't begin at forty for the Doge. It was customary thinking that those who were older were less likely to intrigue. So Doges in their sixties and seventies were rare - the average Doge was elected in his eighties!
The Palazzo Ducale is just a little way south of the Basilica and is the eastern wall of the Piazzetta and the northern buildings of the Molo. Entrance is on the Molo and costs 18,000 lira and please take my advice and not bother with the audioguide - the liquid crystal maps are very hard to fathom out, and the commentary is not worth the money. Invest in a good guidebook instead for half the price (3,000 lira). The first thing you come to is the courtyard (see photo). This is gorgeous, built on three levels where columned loggias look down on the rear of the Basilica. What you have to remember is that the Basilica was the Doge's private church, not the pope's - church and state were separate from the rest of Italy, which caused much anger with the papacy.
But dominating the courtyard is the Arco di Fascari - a swirling arch of reliefs, statues and niches. Beyond that leading up to the first level is the Sala di Giganti whose marble staircase is flanked by titanic statues of Neptune and Mars (see photo).
From the first level a set of stairs takes you up to the Doge's apartments. These stairs, the Sala D'Oro, were covered in gilt and reliefs (see photo). The apartments themselves were completely bare and full of befuddled tourists struggling with their audioguides. But the ceilings were impressive, especially the Sala D'Escudo which had frescoes of the Venetian trading empire (I picked out London on one of them...) The audiotape weakly guides you through rooms hung with paintings by Titian and Tintoretto. On one wall was the lion of St Mark taking on the bull of Europe - a pointed reference to the league of Cambrai where the whole of Europe deservedly ganged up on Venice.
But the highlight was the Sala de Collegio where the Doge met foreign ambassadors. Veronese did magnificent frescoes and the tour groups tramped across the marble floors. The best part, though, were the views through the windows. Salute could be seen at the entrance to the Grande Canale and the column's of St Mark looked so close they could be touched.
Then it was down to the dungeons. To reach them you must cross the famous 'Bridge of Sighs' named after the noise of those crossing it. I think it really should be called the 'Bridge of Implausible Explanations' (It wasn't me guv! It was him! I'm innocent I tell you...innocent!) Which is far more realistic. There is a small museum before you descend with cannon's, cutlasses and flintlocks and a tiny suit of armour for Henry of Navarre.
But by that time you have passed through hundreds of rooms and barely glance at the dungeons. A climb back up will take you into the sunlight and courtyard. And standing there gazing up at the Sala di Giganti I found that it was one of those places in the world that keeps in your mind for hours afterwards. It really is a fairytale palace and it came as no surprise to learn when I got home that Venice was Walt Disney's favourite city.