The Ducal Palace – Venice

THE charm which Venice still possesses, and which for the last fifty years has rendered it the favorite haunt of all the painters of picturesque subjects, is owing to the effect of the palaces belonging to the period we have now to examine, mingled with those of the Renaissance.

The effect is produced in two different ways. The Renaissance palaces are not more picturesque in themselves than the club-houses of Pall Mall ; but they become delightful by the contrast of their severity and refinement with the rich and rude confusion of the sea life beneath them, and of their white and solid masonry with the green waves. Remove from beneath them the orange sails of the fishing boats, the black gliding of the gondolas, the cumbered decks and rough crews of the barges of traffic, and the fretfulness of the green water along their foundations, and the Renaissance palaces possess no more interest than those of London or Paris. But the Gothic palaces are picturesque in themselves, and wield over us an independent power. Sea and sky, and every other accessory might be taken away from them, and still they would be beautiful and strange. They are not less striking in the loneliest streets of Padua and Vicenza (where many were built during the period of the Venetian authority in those cities) than in the most crowded thoroughfares of Venice itself ; and if they could be transported into the midst of London, they would still not altogether lose their power over the feelings.

The best proof of this is in the perpetual attractiveness of all pictures, however poor in skill, which have taken for their subject the principal of these Gothic buildings, the Ducal Palace. In spite of all architectural theories and teachings, the paintings of this building are always felt to be delightful; we cannot be wearied by them, though often sorely tried ; but we are not put to the same trial in the case of the palaces of the Renaissance. They are never drawn singly, or as the principal subject, nor can they be. The building which faces the Ducal Palace on the opposite side of the Piazzetta is celebrated among architects, but it is not familiar to our eyes; it is painted only incidentally, for the completion, not the subject of a Venetian scene; and even the Renaissance arcades of St. Mark’s Place, though frequently painted, are always treated as a mere avenue to its Byzantine church and colossal tower. And the Ducal Palace itself owes the peculiar charm which we have hitherto felt, not so much to its greater size as compared with other Gothic buildings, or nobler designs (for it never yet has been rightly drawn), as to its comparative isolation. The other Gothic structures are as much injured by the continual juxtaposition of the Renaissance palaces, as the latter are aided by it; they exhaust their own life by breathing it into the Renaissance coldness: but the Ducal Palace stands comparatively alone, and fully expresses the Gothic power.

And it is just that it should be so seen, for it is the original of nearly all the rest. It is not the elaborate and more studied development of a national style, but the great and sudden invention of one man, instantly forming a national style, and becoming the model for the imitation of every architect in Venice for upwards of a century. It was the determination of this one fact which occupied me the greater part of the time I spent in Venice. It had always appeared to me most strange that there should be in no part of the city any incipient or imperfect types of the form of the Ducal Palace; it was difficult to believe that so mighty a building had been the conception of one man, not only in disposition and detail, but in style ; and yet impossible, had it been otherwise, but that some early examples of approximate Gothic form must exist. There is not one. The palaces built between the final cessation of the Byzantine style, about 1300, and the date of the Ducal Palace (1320-1350), are all completely distinct in character, and there is literally no transitional form between them and the perfection of the Ducal Palace. Every Gothic building in Venice which resembles the latter is a copy of it. I do not mean that there was no Gothic in Venice before the Ducal Palace, but that the mode of its application to domestic architecture had not been determined. The real root of the Ducal Palace is the apse of the church of the Frari. The traceries of that apse, though earlier and ruder workmanship, are nearly the same in mouldings, and precisely the same in treatment (especially in the placing of the lions’ heads), as those of the great Ducal Arcade; and the originality of thought in the architect of the Ducal Palace consists in his having adopted those traceries, in a more highly developed and finished form to civil uses.

The reader will observe that the Ducal Palace is arranged somewhat in the form of a hollow square, of which one side faces the Piazzetta, and another the quay called the Riva dei Schiavoni; the third is on the dark canal called the Rio del Palazzo, and the fourth joins the Church of St. Mark.

Of this fourth side, therefore nothing can be seen. Of the other three sides we shall have to speak constantly; and they will be respectively called, that towards the Piazzetta, the ” Piazzetta Facade “; and that towards the Riva dei Schiavoni, the ” Sea Facade “; and that towards the Rio del Palazzo, the ” Rio Facade.” This Rio, or canal, is usually looked upon by the traveller with great respect, or even horror, because it passes under the Bridge of Sighs. It is, however one of the principal thoroughfares of the city; and the bridge and its canal together occupy in the mind of a Venetian, very much the position of Fleet Street and Temple Bar in that of a Londoner, at least at the time when Temple Bar was occasionally decorated with human heads. The two buildings closely resemble each other in form.

We must now proceed to obtain some rough idea of the appearance and distribution of the palace itself; but its arrangement will be better understood by supposing ourselves raised some hundred and fifty feet above the point in the lagoon in front of it, so as to get a general view of the Sea Facade and Rio Facade (the latter in very steep perspective), and to look down into its interior court. We have merely to notice that, of the two bridges seen on the right, the uppermost, above the black canal, is the Bridge of Sighs; the lower one is the Ponte della Paglia, the regular thoroughfare from quay to quay, and I believe, called the Bridge of Straw, because the boats which brought straw from the mainland used to sell it at this place. The corner of the palace rising above this bridge, and formed by the meeting of the Sea Facade and Rio Facade, will always be called the Vine angle, because it is decorated by a sculpture of the drunkenness of Noah. The angle opposite will be called the Fig-tree angle, because it is decorated by a sculpture of the Fall of Man. The long and narrow range of building, of which the roof is seen in perspective behind this angle, is the part of the palace fronting the Piazzetta; and the angle under the pinnacle most to the left of the two which terminate it will be called the Judgment angle. Within the square formed by the building is seen its interior court (with one of its wells), terminated by small and fantastic buildings of the Renaissance period, which face the Giants’ Stair, of which the extremity is seen sloping down on the left.

The great facade which fronts the spectator looks south-ward. Hence the two traceried windows lower than the rest, and to the right of the spectator, may be conveniently distinguished as the ” Eastern Windows.” There are two others like them, filled with tracery, and at the same level, which look upon the narrow canal between the Ponte della Paglia and the Bridge of Sighs: these we may conveniently call the ” Canal Windows.”

On the party wall, between the second and third windows, which faces the eastern extremity of the Great Council Chamber, is painted the Paradise of Tintoret; and this wall will therefore be hereafter called the ” Wall of the Paradise.”

In nearly the centre of the Sea Facade, and between the first and second windows of the Great Council Chamber, is a large window to the ground, opening on a balcony, which is one of the chief ornaments of the palace, and will be called in future the ” Sea Balcony.”

The facade which looks on the Piazzetta is very nearly like this to the Sea, but the greater part of it was built in the Fifteenth Century, when people had become studious of their symmetries. The side windows are all on the same level. Two light the west end of the Great Council Chamber, one lights a small room anciently called the Quarantia Civil Nuova; the other three, and the central one, with a balcony like that to the Sea, light another large chamber, called Sala del Scrutinio, or ” Hall of Enquiry,” which ex-tends to the extremity of the palace above the Porta della Carta.

The reader is now well enough acquainted with the topography of the existing building to be able to follow the ac-counts of its history.

The Ducal Palace, which was the great work of Venice, was built successively in the three styles. There was a Byzantine Ducal Palace, a Gothic Ducal Palace, and a Renaissance Ducal Palace. The second superseded the first totally; a few stones of it (if indeed so much) are all that is left. But the third superseded the second in part only, and the existing building is formed by the union of the two. We shall review the history of each in succession.

The year of the death of Charlemagne, 813, the Venetians determined to make the island of Rialto the seat of the government and capital of their state. Their Doge, Angelo or Agnello Participazio, instantly took vigorous means for the enlargement of the small group of buildings which were to be the nucleus of the future Venice. He appointed per-sons to superintend the rising of the banks of sand, so as to form more secure foundations, and to build wooden bridges over the canals. For the offices of religion he built the Church of St. Mark; and on, or near the spot where the Ducal Palace now stands, he built a palace for the administration of the government.

The history of the Ducal Palace therefore begins with the birth of Venice, and to what remains of it, at this day, is entrusted the last representation of her power.

Of the exact position and form of this palace of Participazio little is ascertained. Sansovino says that it was built near the Ponte della Paglia, and answeringly on the Grand Canal towards San Giorgio; that is to say, in the place now occupied by the Sea Facade; but this was merely the popular report of his day. There can be no doubt whatever that the palace at this period resembled and impressed the other Byzantine edifices of the day, such as the Fondaco dei Turchi, etc.; and that, like them, it was covered with sculpture, and richly adorned with gold and colour.

In the year 1166, it was for the second time injured by fire, but repaired before 1116, when it received another emperor, Henry V. (of Germany), and was again honoured by imperial praise. Between 1173 and the close of the century, it seems to have been again repaired and much enlarged by the Doge Sebastian Ziani. Sansovino says that this Doge not only repaired it, but ” enlarged it in every direction “; and after this enlargement, the palace seems to have remained untouched for a hundred years, in the commencement of the Fourteenth Century, the works of the Gothic Palace were begun. The old palace, of which half remains to this day, was built by Sebastian Ziani.

So far, then, of the Byzantine Palace. 2d. The GOTHIC PALACE. The reader, doubtless, recollects that the important change in the Venetian government which gave stability to the aristocratic power took place about the year 1297, under the Doge Pietro Gradenigo, a man thus characterised by Sansovino: ” A prompt and prudent man, of unconquerable determination and great eloquence, who laid, so to speak, the foundations of the eternity of this republic, by the admirable regulations which he introduced into the government.” The Serra del Consiglio fixed the numbers of the Senate within certain limits, and it conferred upon them a dignity greater than they had ever before possessed. It was natural that the alteration in the character of the assembly should be attended by some change in the size, arrangement, or decoration of the chamber in which they sat.

We accordingly find it recorded by Sansovino, that ” in 1301 another saloon was begun on the Rio del Palazzo under the Doge Gradenigo, and finished in 1309, in which year the Grand Council first sat in it.” In the first year, therefore, of the Fourteenth Century, the Gothic Ducal Palace of Venice was begun; and as the Byzantine Palace, was, in its foundation, coeval with the state, so the Gothic Palace, was, in its foundation, coeval with that of the aristocratic power. Considered as the principal representation of the Venetian school of architecture, the Ducal Palace is the Parthenon of Venice, and Gradenigo its Pericles.

But the newly constituted Senate had need of other additions to the ancient palace besides the Council Chamber. A short, but most significant, sentence is added to Sansovino’s account of the construction of that room. ” There were near it,” he says, ” the Cancellaria, and the Gheba or Gabbia, afterwards called the Little Tower.”

Gabbia means a ” cage “; and there can be no question that certain apartments were at this time added at the top of the palace and on the Rio Facade, which were to be used as prisons. Whether any portion of the old Torresella still remains is a doubtful question ; but the apartments at the top of the palace, in its fourth story, were still used for prisons as late as the beginning of the Seventeenth Century. I wish the reader especially to notice that a separate tower or range of apartments was built for this purpose, in order to clear the government of the accusations so constantly made against them, by ignorant or partial historians, of wanton cruelty to prisoners. The stories commonly told respecting the ” piombi ” of the Ducal Palace are utterly false. Instead of being, as usually reported, small furnaces under the leads of the palace, they were comfortable rooms, with good flat roofs of larch, and carefully ventilated. The new chamber, then, and the prisons, being built, the Great Council first sat in their retired chamber on the Rio in the year 1309.

It appears from the entry still preserved in the Archivio, and quoted by Cadorin, that it was on the 28th of December, 1340, that the commissioners appointed to decide on this important matter gave in their report to the Grand Council, and that the decree passed thereupon for the commencement of a new Council Chamber on the Grand Canal.

The room then begun is the one now in existence, and its building involved the building of all that is best and most beautiful in the present Ducal Palace, the rich arcades of the lower stories being all prepared for sustaining this Sala del Gran Consiglio.

Its decorations and fittings, however, were long in completion; the paintings on the roof being only executed in 1400. They represented the heavens covered with stars, this being, says Sansovino, the bearings of the Doge Steno. The Grand Council sat in the finished chamber for the first time in 1423. In that year the Gothic Ducal Palace was completed. It had taken, to build it, the energies of the entire period which I have above described, as the central one of her life.

3rd. The RENAISSANCE PALACE.I must go back a step or two, in order to be certain that the reader under-stands clearly the state of the palace in 1423. The works of addition or renovation had now been proceeding, at intervals, during a space of a hundred and twenty-three years. Three generations at least had been accustomed to witness the gradual advancement of the form of the Ducal Palace into more stately symmetry, and to contrast the works of sculpture and painting with which it was decorated, full of the life, knowledge, and hope of the Fourteenth Century,—with the rude Byzantine chiselling of the palace of the Doge Ziani. The magnificent fabric just completed, of which the new Council Chamber was the nucleus, was now habitually known in Venice as the ” Palazzo Nuovo “; and the old Byzantine edifice, now ruinous and more manifest in its decay by its contrast with the goodly stones of the building which had been raised at its side, was of course known as the ” Palazzo Vecchio.” That fabric, however, still occupied the principal position in Venice. The new Council Chamber had been erected by the side of it towards the Sea; but there was not the wide quay in front, the Riva dei Schiavoni, which now renders the Sea Facade as important as that to the Piazzetta. There was only a narrow walk between the pillars and the water; and the old palace of Ziani still faced the Piazzetta, and interrupted, by its decrepitude, the magnificence of the square where the nobles daily met. Every increase of the beauty of the new palace rendered the discrepancy between it and the companion building more painful; and then began to arise in the minds of all men a vague idea of the necessity of destroying the old palace, and completing the front of the Piazzetta with the same splendour as the Sea Facade. . . . The Great Council Chamber was used for the first time on the day when Foscari entered the Senate as Doge—the 3rd of April, 1423, . . . and the following year, on the 27th of March, the first hammer was lifted up against the old palace of Ziani.

That hammer stroke was the first act of the period properly called the ” Renaissance.” It was the knell of the architecture of Venice, and of Venice herself.

I have no intention of following out, in their intricate details, the operations which were begun under the Foscari and continued under succeeding Doges till the palace assumed its present form: but the main facts are the following: The palace of Ziani was destroyed; the existing facade to the Piazzetta built, so as both to continue and to resemble, in most particulars, the work of the Great Council Chamber. It was carried back from the Sea as far as the Judgment angle; beyond which is the Porta della Carta, begun in 1439, and finished in two years, under the Doge Foscari ; the interior buildings connected with it were added by the Doge Christopher Moro (the Othello of Shakespeare) in 1462.

But whatever buildings, old or new, stood on this spot at the time of the completion of the Porta della Carta were destroyed by another great fire of 1479, together with so much of the palace on the Rio that, though the saloon of Gradenigo, then known as the Sala de’ Pregadi, was not destroyed, it became necessary to reconstruct the entire facades of the portion of the palace behind the Bridge of Sighs, both towards the court and canal. This work was entrusted to the best Renaissance architects of the close of the Fifteenth and opening of the Sixteenth Centuries; Antonio Ricci executing the Giant’s Staircase, and on his absconding, Pietro Lombardo taking his place. The whole work must have been completed towards the middle of the Sixteenth Century.

But the palace was not long permitted to remain in this finished form. Another terrific fire, commonly called the great fire, burst out in 1574, and destroyed the inner fittings and all the precious pictures of the Great Council Chamber, and of all the upper rooms on the Sea Facade, and most of those on the Rio Facade, leaving the building a mere shell, shaken and blasted by the flames. It was de-bated in the Great Council whether the ruin should not be thrown down, and an entirely new palace built in its stead. The opinions of all the leading architects of Venice were taken, respecting the safety of the walls, or the possibility of repairing them as they stood. These opinions, given in writing, have been preserved, and published by the Abbe Cadorin in the work already so often referred to; and they form one of the most important series of documents connected with the Ducal Palace.

The repairs necessarily undertaken at this time were however extensive, and interfere in many directions with the earlier work of the palace: still the only serious alteration in its form was the transposition of the prisons, formerly at the top of the palace, to the other side of the Rio del Palazzo; and the building of the Bridge of Sighs, to connect them with the palace, by Antonio da Ponte. The completion of this work brought the whole edifice into its present form; with the exception of alterations in doors, partitions, and staircases among the inner apartments, not worth noticing, and such barbarisms and defacements as have been suffered within the last fifty years, by, I suppose, nearly every building of importance in Italy.