The area which today is Venice was first settled after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and grew significantly due to the influx of refugees after the invasion of Northern Italy by the Lombards in 568. Although subject to the Byzantine Empire it gradually gained autonomy and in the 7th century the figure of a Doge was introduced to administer the area and who was to become the supreme authority of the Republic of Venice. In 1204 Venice was part of the Fourth Crusade, which seized Constantinople thus enabling them to obtain considerable plunder from the city including the Winged Lion of St. Mark, which was to become the symbol of Venice. A period of prosperity followed leading to the emergence of Venice as a great naval power.
The first building on the site of the Doge’s Palace was a wooden stockade constructed in 814 AD comprising of watch towers, drawbridge and moat. This was destroyed in 976 AD during a civil uprising though was rebuilt. In the early 14th century the fort was no longer required so was replaced with a palace which was to be the Doge’s residence. It was also the venue for its law courts and administration and - until its relocation across the Bridge of Sighs - it was also the city jail. It remained the heart of the Republic of Venice until 1797 and the Napoleonic occupation of the city.
The architectural style of the Doge's Palace is referred to as Venetian Gothic, as it adapts northern Gothic styles to the ground conditions of the area. Tall arches, steeples and towers were prone to subsidence and as buildings needed to have piled foundations sunk into the mud of the Lagoon, buildings tended to be low, squat structures. The palace itself was constructed in two phases. The eastern wing, on the Rio del Palazzo, was constructed between 1301-40, while the western wing, on the Piazetta, was added between 1340 and 1450.
The principal facades of the palace overlook the San Marco Piazetta to the west and the San Marco Basin to the south. The lower section of each consists of a ground floor colonnade beneath an open loggia. The walls of white limestone and pink marble are softened by porticos, loggias and a series of balconies. The arcade columns, which originally stood on a stylobate of three steps, are no longer visible in some places due to subsidence and they now rise from the ground without bases. The northern side of the palace adjoins Saint Mark's Cathedral while the eastern side runs parallel to the Rio del Palazzo, a narrow canal spanned by the Bridge of Sighs which connects the Doge's Palace to the former prison on the opposite bank.
The Porta della Carta (Paper gate), the main entrance, was created in 1438 as a link between the Palace and the Basilica and is an excellent example of Venetian Gothic architecture. It got its’ name from the decrees nailed here for the public to see or from the people who would wait here to hand over petitions or requests. The doorway is surrounded by figures while above it is the Doge Fransesco Foscari kneeling before the Lion of St Mark which symbolizes that the individual bows to the power of the State. The sculptures are 19th century copies of the original which was destroyed in 1797 during Napoleons occupation of the city.
On entry the interior courtyard incorporates a mixture of Gothic and renaissance styles. The eastern façade which was rebuilt following a fire in the middle of the 16th century, incorporates a flight of stairs, known as the "Scala dei giganti" (Staircase of the Giants), which lead to the state apartments and the Doge's private quarters on the second floor. The stairway acquired its name because of the two large statues of Mars and Neptune by Jacopo Sansovino erected in 1565 which are symbolic of Venice’s power on land and sea. It was at the top of the staircase that the Doge was crowned.
The palace is preserved as a museum, but unlike most museums the paintings were created especially to decorate the palace and not added later; consequently the palace’s interior walls and ceilings are decorated with magnificent works of art all of which give the palace an aura of magnificence and beauty. Many of the rooms are open to the public although photography is restricted. The Chancellery, naval and censor's offices are located on the ground floor. The Golden Staircase, built in 1549, was reserved for the use of Magistrates and important people and leads to the State and Doge’s Apartments and the Square Entrance Hall: It is decorated with works of many of the great artists of the time.
The Grand Council Chamber, built between 1340-1355, is the largest and most spectacular room and is located on the second floor. The Chamber is 54 metres in length and runs almost the entire length of the southern waterfront façade It was the Grand Council that elected the Doge and appointed the senate. This vast chamber was formerly the meeting place of the one thousand or so nobles who formed the ruling elite of the Venetian Republic. The full width of one wall of the chamber is covered by Tintoretto's "Paradise", the world's largest oil-on-canvass painting (71 feet by 23 feet) which replaced paintings by Bellini and Titan destroyed by fire in 1588. Also on the 2nd floor are the armoury which contains over 2,200 weapons and suits of armour mostly from the 15th – 16th century and the map room.
On the 3rd floor is the Sala del Collegio, where foreign ambassadors were received; The Council of Ten, the government ministers; the Bussola Chamber, the room where citizens could submit complaints against officials; and the Inquisitor's Room.
The eastern wing of the palace is connected by the Bridge of Sighs to the prison on the opposite bank of the Rio del Palazzo. The 11 metre bridge with its two corridors was constructed around 1600, and acquired its name during the late 18th century when Lord Byron recounted the sound of condemned prisoner's sighs as they crossed it and took a last look at Venice out of the window. Over the bridge can be seen the cells. One of the most famous prisoners held in the Doge’s Palace was Giacomo Casanova who escaped from here in 1756.
The Doge’s Palace has something for everyone, it is a beautiful building with beautiful décor, paintings and exhibits, and is a must to visit in Venice.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.