Gothic Venice: The Doge’s Palace

THE nucleus of the first Venice, before it was made the seat of government of the Republic, is said to have been the little district about the great bridge over the Grand Canal, which still retains the name of Rialto. But as soon as the island group of Rivo Alto became the capital of the Republic of the Venetians, a Palace for the Dux or Doge was erected near the open mouth, on the site which its successor still occupies. This earliest palace was probably built in the year 813 ; close beside it rose the old Ducal Chapel of St. Theodore, the predecessor of St. Mark’s. In style, the first Ducal Mansion must have generally resembled the Fondaco dei Turchi, and must no doubt have been a building in the severe early-Byzantine manner. It was more than once burnt down, but each time rebuilt, the last large restoration being made by Doge Sebastiano Ziani in 1173. In 1301, however, the government of Venice having become by that time more strictly oligarchical, a new saloon was built for the meetings of the new Grand Council, (Consiglio Maggiore ­čśë and this saloon, designed in the fashionable Gothic style, which was then just beginning to invade Venice from the mainland, formed the nucleus of the existing palace. (Earlier Gothic palaces which set the type will be seen on the Grand Canal.) For a time, only the south front towards the open lagoon, with a small part of the western facade towards the Piazzetta, was completed in this style the old Byzantine-Romanesque palace of Ziani filled up the gap between this new Gothic portion and the gate next St. Mark’s (now the Porta della Carta). The existing front towards the open lagoon dates from about 1309 to 1340: the ruins of the old Byzantine palace were pulled down after a fire in 1419, and the remaining fa├žade as far as St. Mark’s was shortly after completed┬ŚGothic in form, but Renaissance in feeling. Later still, during the Renaissance period, the inner court and the fa├žade toward the side canal were gradually added. These details of the building and its vicissitudes will become clearer as we examine the architecture on the spot. As a whole, the Doges Palace as it now stands may be regarded (externally) as the characteristic typical example of fully developed Venetian Gothic. It is built of brick, and is lined or incrusted with small lozenge-like slabs of variously coloured marble.

The Interior of the Doge’s Palace, as we see it at present, belongs to a much later date than the exterior. The building was gutted by a great fire in 1574 and again in 1577, which entirely destroyed all its pictures and internal decorations. The works it now contains are therefore of late date, (16th and 17th century,) and should not be examined till after the visitor has thoroughly mastered the evolution of earlier Venetian painting at the Academy. The outside and inside of the Palace, indeed, have little relation historically to one another.]

Begin your examination of the Doge’s Palace at the south=east corner, facing the lagoon, and remotest from the Piazza.

Stand on the Ponte della Paglia, opposite the (16th century) Bridge of Sighs, which connects the courts in the Palace with the Criminal Prison to your R. (This late building has little relation to the original edifice.) The first portion of the Palace, on the side canal to your left (Rio di Palazzo) has its brick wall still uncased with marble, and thus shows you well the primitive character of the architecture throughout. Notice the charming string-courses of decorative work marking the various floors or levels, as well as the delicate original windows, spoiled by the proximity of several square modern additions. Confine yourself for the. present to this primitive brick portion, and observe well the arrangement of its component members.

Note next that the corner of the building here (and in most of the other Gothic Palaces) is gracefully softened by the addition of spiral columns, with occasional projections ; and observe how this artistic softening runs up through all the stories. The Palace has three exposed angles, (the fourth abuts on St. Mark’s ­čśë these three are decorated with sculpture : above, the three archangels below, three figure-subjects intended respectively to inculcate Justice, Obedience, Temperance┬Śappropriate morals for the residence of a chief magistrate. The archangel in this case is Raphael, accompanied by the boy Tobias, holding the fish which was to cure his father’s blindness. (Tobias is only present as the archangel’s symbol.) Raphael looks sea-ward, and holds a scroll with a prayer, (in a rhymed Latin hexameter,) asking him to render the lagoon and the Adriatic free from tempest. (Effice, quaeso, fretum, Rafael reverende, quietum.) The sculptured group below represents the *Drunkenness of Noah, (1317,) inculcating Temperance. (These sculptures are taken here in inverse order, for an architectural and historical reason which will presently be apparent. The proper order would of course be Michael, Gabriel, Raphael.) Shem and Japhet are covering their father with a cloth ; Ham stands apart beyond the arch. Wine pours from the cup in the drunken patriarch’s hand ; his other hand grasps and crushes the grapes. The leafage of the vine is fine, but the tendrils have been broken.

Now, descend the bridge, and stand opposite the Palace, near the water’s edge, to observe the South Fa├žade, or Sea Front. It consists of four tiers. The lowest tier is composed of an arcade with short and somewhat stumpy columns, without bases. (They were not always quite so short, as the level of the pavement has been raised, but they had never any bases.) The noble sculptured *capitals of these columns are all varied, with fine Gothic feeling, and must be separately examined afterwards. This covered arcade, screened from sun or rain, was the chief meeting-place of the Venetian nobility in the days of the Republic. The second tier consists of an open Ioggia, guarded by a balustrade; it has cusped arches, with pierced quatrefoils above them, having lions’ heads in the angles. Notice the characteristic ball ornament in the quatrefoils. This type of loggia was afterwards copied in most of the Gothic palaces on the Grand Canal erected subsequently to this building ; they may be described as of the Doge’s Palace type. The loggia was used by ladies of the senatorial order for viewing great state ceremonies. The two first floors are thus the -lightest. The wall above, contrary to the usual rule, is heavier than the lower portion: it is relatively plain, and pierced with few windows, but is encased in an elaborate decorative pattern of encrusted marble. This heavy plainness enhances by contrast the beauty and airiness of the lower stories. The first two windows of the third tier, to the R., retain their ancient tracery, (of two types, one like that in the apse of the Fran,) and perhaps belong to the very earliest part of the building (about 1301). The four plain windows to the L., with the large door into the central balcony, form part of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, the great hall for which this second portion of the Palace was originally erected, (about 1340.) The fourth tier is pierced with small round windows ; the architectural arrangement here will be more obvious after you have visited the interior.

The centre of this sea fa├žade is occupied by an immense window, with a fine balcony of pierced marble work (1404). On the pinnacle at the summit above stands Justice, (or, more probably, Venice,) with the sword and scales ; below, in three niches, St. Mark, flanked by St. Peter and St. Paul : then, Charity in the circle above the window, Faith and Hope beside her. Close by, the four Cardinal Virtues. (These Virtues recur everywhere in Venice.) Beneath, at the sides of the window, St. George (modern, by Canova) and St. Theodore, the minor patrons.

This south fa├žade, taken as a whole, is the oldest part of the Palace, 14th century.

Return to the side-canal corner, by the Drunkenness of Noah, in order to examine the capitals of the columns: they have been restored, (or rather, renewed,) but are still interesting. (I) Corner column, symbolical half-lengths of children and men (with razors, draughts, etc.) among foliage ; (2) pelicans, and other similar birds of symbolical character (animal symbolism is an interesting subject, largely exemplified at Venice, but not to be adequately treated within the necessarily restricted limits of this Guide) ; (3) male and female heads ; (4) children with grapes, birds, etc. ; (5) famous monarchs (beginning on the side towards the Sea Front :) the Emperor Titus Vespasian, the Emperor Trajan, Priam king of Troy, (chronologically the series starts here,) Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Darius, Julius Caesar, Augustus ; (6) female heads ; (7) Virtues and Vices, (begin on the front,) Liberality, dispensing money ; Constancy ; Discord ; Patience ; Despair, thrusting a dagger into her throat, and tearing her hair ; Obedience ; Infidelity, holding an idol ; Modesty : (8) Centaurs, Giants, and monsters of various forms, all symbolical ; (9) Virtues : Faith, holding the cross ; Courage, tearing open lion’s jaw ; Temperance, with pitcher and cup of water ; Humility, with a lamb ; Charity, feeding a child ; Justice, holding a sword ; Prudence, with compasses ; Hope, clasping her hands, all very typical allegorical personifications : recollect them for future examples ; (to) Vices : Luxury, with mirror ; Gluttony, gnawing a bone ; Pride, as a Knight ; Anger, tearing her own breast ; Avarice, clasping money-bags ; Idleness, lolling ; Vanity, with a mirror and crown ; Envy, wreathed with snakes and nursing a dragon ; (II) birds; (12) Vices and their opposite virtues: Despondency ; Cheerfulness, playlng a tambourine ; Folly, on horseback ; Chastity, reading, as a cloistered nun ; Honesty ; Falsehood, a hag ; Injustice, armed with a halbert ; Abstinence, apparently as continence : (13) Lions’ heads : (14) Symbolical animals┬Śdogs, monkeys, a boar, lion, etc.: (15) the nobility, (?) a lady with a distaff; a young lord with a rose ; a woman with a. lap-dog ; a man with a falcon; a woman counting her jewels; a man playing with foliage ; a queen with a rose ; a boy with a ball : symbolising worldly joys and pleasures (?) : (16) Heads, representing nations, eastern and western ; (17) Philosophers : Solomon ; Priscian the grammarian, Aristotle the logician, Cicero the orator, Pythagoras the arithmetician, Euclid the geometer, Tubal Cain the musician, Ptolemy the astronomer: (18) the sun and planets in their “Houses” or signs ; Aquarius, Saturn riding a goat and bearing an urn ; the House of Saturn : Sagittarius and Pisces, Jupiter riding a centaur, holding the bow, with two fish; the House of Jupiter : Aries and Scorpio, the House of Mars, a knight bestriding a ram, and carrying a scorpion : Leo, the House of the Sun, represented as Apollo, seated on a lion : Taurus and Libra, the House of Venus, who sits on a bull, and holds balances : Gemini and Virgo, the House of Mercury, between two children and a maiden : Cancer, the House of the Moon, a woman in a boat, holding a crab : God creating Adam, for whose use these stars existed, (for mediaeval intelligence.) Note that everywhere in this age the connection between astronomy and religion is very close, the Calendar being a sacred compilation to show saints’ days and festivals.

From the base of the great Granite Column with St Mark’s lion, you can best examine the south=west corner. It is softened above in the same manner as the preceding one. The archangel here is Michael, holding his sword ; the sculpture below represents **the Fall, (13440 and typifies or enforces Ob├ędience. It is an admirable piece of early Gothic work, with especially good fig-tree foliage, well undercut, and extremely vigorous. Adam and *Eve are fine Gothic nudes of their period.

Proceed round the corner to examine the W. fa├žade, towards the Piazzetta. The first two windows of this fa├žade on the third tier belong to the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, and form part of the original Gothic portion, which ended at the sixth arch from the Adam-and-Eve corner. Its limits are well marked by a square thickened pillar on the loggia, or second tier, surmounted by a fine *relief of Venice enthroned between her lions. There can be no doubt as to her personality in this case, since she is legibly inscribed, ” Venecia.” Behind her is the rhymed inscription, Fortis iusta trono furias mare sub pede pono : (” Brave and just, I place faction beneath my throne and the sea beneath my foot.”)

The rest of this W. fa├žade is of later Gothic work, tinged by Renaissance feeling, (see introduction to this section,)but excellently harmonised with the earlier portion. It is the part erected (about 1430) under Francesco Foscari upon the site of the Romanesque palace of Doge Ziani. The capitals of its pillars are mostly copied from those of the earlier ones. The central balcony is best observed from the lamp-post opposite, near the Libreria Vecchia. On the summit stands Venice with her lions ; below, a bearded Doge (Francesco Foscari) kneels before the Lion of St. Mark with the Venetian motto, (Pax tibi, etc.) The statues in the niches represent, above, R., Jupiter, L, Mercury below, R., Neptune, L., Mars. They thus suggestively represent (J.) the ducal authority, (M.) the commerce of Venice, (N.) her command of the sea, and (M.) her military power. Observe that here for the first time we come across personages from the pagan mythology, a point which marks distinct transition from the mediaeval to the Renaissance spirit. Till now, the symbolism has been all Christian.

The north-west corner, near St. Mark’s, is softened by sculpture like the others. Its archangel is Gabriel, with the Annunciation lily. Its subject-sculpture, a noble piece of 15th-century Florentine work by a pair of Tuscan sculptors, represents the *Judgment of Solomon, typifying Justice ; this group is best seen from the seat by the red porphyry figures opposite.

The newer semi-Renaissance part of the Palace just examined, (from the figure of Venice in a circle to the Judgment of Solomon,) was probably erected about 1424-1442, by Giovanni Buon, and his two sons, Pantaleone and Bartolommeo. Remember Bartolommeo : you will meet him elsewhere.

The magnificent doorway which gives access to the interior court-yard, is known as the Porta della Carta, because government proclamations were posted here. It is late Gothic with marked Renaissance tendencies, and was erected by Bartolommeo Buon (1438-43). On the summit, Venezia is enthroned between her lions, with sword and scales, and so named on the pedestal ; beneath, on the tympanum, winged children (putti) climb among rampant foliage ; at the top of the arch we see St. Mark, holding his Gospel, in a circle of Renaissance work ; beneath him, a late over-decorated window ; over the square doorway, a restored relief of Doge Cristoforo Moro, (but, as restored, he seems to me to have the features of Leonardo Loredan,) kneeling before the lion of St. Mark, (original destroyed in the French Revolution ­čśë in the niches by the sides, the Virtues, (Courage, Prudence, Hope, Charity,) named on their pedestals. Study this doorway with all its details as characteristic of the transition from Gothic to Renaissance.

Next, go back to the Adam-and-Eve corner, to examine the capitals of the columns along this western fa├žade. The corner one (already noted) and the five which succeed it, belong to the old part of the building.

(1) Sculpture and architecture, with small bits of coloured marble suggestively inserted, to mark its meaning : the figures (sainted masters with their pupils) are at work on various pieces of decorative detail: (2) heads of animals, tearing prey; (begin on front ­čśë lion with stag; wolf with bird ; fox with cock ; griffon with hare ; boar with mast ; dog with bone ; cat with rat ; bear with honeycomb ; the whole creation groaneth and travaileth : (3) the trades ; stonecutter, goldsmith, shoemaker, carpenter, measurer, gardener, notary, smith : (4) influence of planets on seven ages of man ; the moon governs infancy four years ; Mercury chlldhood ten ; Venus adolescence seven ; the sun maturity nineteen ; Mars middle age fifteen; Jupiter old age twelve; Saturn decrepitude till death; death the penalty of sin: (5) human heads, races ; (6) marriage ; first glimpse at a balcony, courtship, presents, embraces, wedding, birth of a child, its upbringing, its death : (7) Months, thus : March ; April with May ; June ; July with August ; September ; October with November ; December, sticking a pig ; January with February : (this is the first of the later capitals; Ruskin┬Śerroneously, I think┬Śmakes it the last of the early ones :) (8) female half-lengths : (9) fruits ; cherry ; pear ; cucumber ; peach ; gourd ; melon ; fig grape : (lo) duplicate, copied from an old one : (11) duplicate : (12 and 13) duplicate : (14) full-length figures, draped : (15 and 16) duplicates : (17) children, very Renaissance : (18) Justice, continuing the subject above it : Justice, with sword and scales, enthroned between her lions ; then, lawgivers┬ŚAristotle ; Lycurgus (?) ; Solon ; the “Chastity of Scipio” ; (he refuses a beautiful slave as a bribe ­čśë Numa building temples ; Moses receiving the law ; Trajan stopping on his way to a campaign to do justice to a poor widow ; the inscriptions on the others are in Latin, on this in Venetian. Recollect, however, that all these capitals, though good, are modern copies; the originals are preserved in a ground-floor of the Doge’s Palace.

Do not at present enter the court-yard, but continue on past the main fa├žade of St. Mark’s, turning to the right through the little Piazza del Leoni, (on your L. the pseudo-classic fa├žade of the desecrated church of San Basso,) and holding straight down the narrow street, (the Calle di Canonico,) which leads to the canal (Rio Palazzo) at the back of the Palace. (Fronting you as you approach the bridge is the imposing and decorated Palazzo Trevisani, in the Lombardi or Venetian early Renaissance style, built about 1500.) Stand on the next bridge to the R. to examine the E. or later Renaissance fa├žade of the Doge’s Palace, facing the Rio di Palazzo, which is best observed from this bridge (or the little quay beyond it) and the one by the Drunkenness of Noah. It is a fine specimen of High Renaissance work, well varied in its windows and decorations, but it lacks the picturesque beauty of the Gothic portion. The absurdly over-rated Bridge of Sighs is a late and incongruous addition, ugly enough in itself, but picturesque in virtue of its height, its covered parapet, and its unusual position. It was built about 1590 by Antonio da Ponte, the architect of the Rialto bridge, to connect the Palace with the Prison he had just erected beyond the Rio. Most casual visitors to Venice, curiously enough, carry away with them, as their main mental picture of the mighty mediaeval town, these late Renaissance bridges, which, of course, were never seen by the powerful Doges or the great painters, sculptors, and architects, who made Venice. There is nothing romantic about the Ponte dei Sospiri, which merely unites the Courts of Justice in the Palace with the Criminal Prison.

Now, return to the Porta della Carta, and enter the inner court-yard of the Palace.

The West and South sides of the court, (in brick in the upper story,) consist in the main of the older building of 1340 (S.), and the later Gothic extension of 1430 (W.) ; but their two lower floors have been immensely remodelled into uniformity with the later Renaissance portion of the building. The arcade here has pointed arches, but all the decorations and columns are Renaissance in feeling. The E. fa├žade, completely coated with marble from top to bottom, forms the inner front of the Renaissance portion on the side canal, and is a very ornate and costly example of Venetian Renaissance decoration. It is imposing by virtue of its richness, and its numerous coloured marble insertions, so characteristic of the age and place ; but its upper floors harmonise ill with the semi-Gothic arcade of the loggia. It was erected in the late 15th century by Rizzo. Examine the characteristic detail, and compare with that of the Louvre. The main court also contains two beautiful bronze *wellheads of Renaissance workmanship (16th century).

The small court, at the North end of this quadrangle, has a little fa├žade adjoining St. Mark’s, erected in 1520 by Bergamasco, a good and more tasteful specimen of early-Renaissance workmanship.

The great staircase in this little court, (known as the Scala dei Giganti, from the statues at its summit,) was the entrance by which the nobility approached the palace. It was built by Rizzo in 1584, and is topped by colossal Renaissance statues of Mars and Neptune, (representative of the military and naval supremacy of Venice,) by Jacopo Sansovino (1554). (Note that the classic mythology now almost supersedes Christian symbolism.) Between them, over the arch, is St. Mark’s lion. At the top of this stair-case the Doges were crowned, in the later ages of the Republic, (from 1521,) with the old formula, in Latin, ” Receive the ducal crown of the dukedom of the Veneti.”

Mount the staircase to the top of the second flight, to view the little fa├žade of the connecting link between St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace. On either side of the arch which faces you as you look back towards the Piazza, are statues of Adam and Eve, by Antonio Rizzo, 1462 ; fine specimens of the early-Renaissance nude. Above is a charming little balcony. The door under the arcade to the R. gives access to the Chapel of St. Clement in St. Mark’s, and is the one by which the Doge usually passed into the church from his palace. We have already noticed it in the interior of the Basilica.

Stand by the northernmost of the two well-heads in the great quadrangle, in order to examine the little fa├žade by the clock-tower. On the lower floor to the R. is a statue of Duke Francesco Maria I., of Urbino, general of the Republic, by the Florentine sculptor Bandini. It shows at once its Florentine character. The statues in the niches are antiques, (gods, and a muse,) but are freely restored. Only by the aid of the plan in Baedeker can you thoroughly understand the intricate intermixture of portions of St. Mark’s with portions of the Doge’s Palace in this curiously debatable junction corner.

The Interior of the Doge’s Palace was entirely gutted by the great fire of 1577, which destroyed all its early paintings and decorations. Those which it now contains are of a much later age, representing the period of the great painters, Tintoretto, Paolo Veronese, and Palma the younger. They have little relation to the Gothic and Renaissance exterior. I strongly advise you, therefore, to defer your visit to the interior until you have studied the origin and development of Venetian painting in full at the Academy. You will then be able to place these fine later works in their proper position. I give an account of them, accordingly, in a subsequent section.