The pink-and-white marble Gothic-Renaissance Palazzo Ducale, residence of the doges who ruled Venice for more than 1,000 years, stands between the Basilica di San Marco and the sea. A symbol of prosperity and power, the original was destroyed by a succession of fires, with the current building started in 1340, extended in the 1420s, and redesigned again after a fire in 1483. If you want to understand something of this magnificent place, the history of the 1,000-year-old maritime republic, and the intrigue of the government that ruled it, take the Secret Itineraries tour (see below). Failing that, at least download the free iPhone/Android app (see the website) or shell out for the audio-guide tour (available at entrance, 5€) to help make sense of it all. Unless you can tag along with an English-speaking tour group, you may otherwise miss out on the importance of much of what you’re seeing.
The 15th-century Porta della Carta (Paper Gate) opens onto a splendid inner courtyard with a double row of Renaissance arches (today visitors enter through a doorway on the lagoon side of the palace). The self-guided route through the palace begins on the main courtyard, where the Museo dell’Opera contains assorted bits of masonry preserved from the palazzo’s exterior. Beyond here, the first major room you’ll come to is the spacious Sala delle Quattro Porte (Hall of the Four Doors), with a worn ceiling by Tintoretto. The Sala dell’Anticollegio, where foreign ambassadors waited to be received by the doge and his council, is covered in four works by Tintoretto, including “Mercury & the Three Graces” and “Bacchus and Ariadne”, the latter deemed one of his best by some critics. The Tintorettos are outshone, however, by Veronese’s “Rape of Europa”, considered one of the palazzo’s finest. The highlight of the adjacent Sala del Collegio (the Council Chamber itself) is the spectacular cycle of ceiling paintings by Veronese, completed between 1575 and 1578 and one of his masterpieces. Next door lies the most impressive of the interior rooms, the richly adorned Sala del Senato (Senate Chamber), with Tintoretto’s ceiling painting “The Triumph of Venice.” After passing again through the Sala delle Quattro Porte, you’ll come to the Veronese-decorated Stanza del Consiglio dei Dieci (Room of the Council of Ten), where justice was dispensed and decapitations ordered by the Republic’s dreaded security police. Formed in the 14th century to deal with emergency situations, the Ten were considered more powerful than the Senate and feared by all. In the Sala della Bussola (the Compass Chamber), notice the Bocca dei Leoni (Lion’s Mouth), a slit in the wall into which secret denunciations and accusations of enemies of the state were placed for quick action by the much-feared Council.
The main sight on the next level down—indeed, the main sight in the entire palace—is the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Great Council Hall). This enormous space is animated by Tintoretto’s huge “Paradiso” ★ at the far end of the hall above the doge’s seat. Measuring 7x23m (23x75 ft.), it is said to be the world’s largest oil painting; together with Veronese’s gorgeous “Il Trionfo di Venezia” (“The Triumph of Venice”) in the oval panel on the ceiling, it affirms the power emanating from the council sessions held here. Tintoretto also did the portraits of the 76 doges encircling the top of this chamber; note that the picture of the Doge Marin Falier, who was convicted of treason and beheaded in 1355, has been blacked out—Venice has never forgiven him. Tours culminate at the enclosed Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs), built in 1600, which connects the Ducal Palace with the grim Palazzo delle Prigioni (Prison). The bridge took its current name in the 19th century, when visiting northern European poets romantically imagined the prisoners’ final resignation upon viewing the outside world one last time before being locked in their fetid cells. Some of the cells still have the original graffiti of past prisoners, many of them locked up interminably for petty crimes.
The Itinerari Segreti (Secret Itineraries) guided tours of the Palazzo Ducale are a must-see for any visit to Venice of more than 1 day. The tours offer an unparalleled look into the world of Venetian politics over the centuries and are the only way to access the otherwise restricted quarters and hidden passageways of this enormous palace, such as the doges’ private chambers and the torture chambers where prisoners were interrogated. The tour must be reserved in advance online (www.vivaticket.it), by phone (tel. 041/4273-0892), or in person at the ticket desk. Tours often sell out at least a few days ahead, especially from spring through fall. Tours in English are daily at 9:55am, 10:45am and 11:35am, and cost 20€ for adults, 14€ for children ages 6 to 14 and students ages 15 to 25. There are also tours in Italian at 9:30am and 11:10am, and French at 10:20am and noon. The tour lasts about 75 minutes.