The Palace Of The Doges – Venice, Italy

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 The second superseded the first totally; a few stones of it (if indeed so much) are all that is left. But the third superseded the second in part only, and the existing building is formed by the union of the two.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.

1st. The Byzantine Palace. In 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 persons to superintend the raising 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.

In the year 1106, 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 honored 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, until, in the commencement of the fourteenth century, the works of the Gothic Palace were begun.

Venice was in the zenith of her strength, and the heroism of her citizens was displaying itself in every quarter of the world. The acquiescence in the secure establishment of the aristocratic power was an expression, by the people, of respect for the families which had been chiefly instrumental in raising the commonwealth to such a height of prosperity.

In the first year of the fourteenth century, the Gothic Ducal Palace of Venice was begun; and as the Byzantine Palace was, in its foundation, coeval with that of 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,

Before it was finished, occasion had been discovered for farther improvements. The Senate found their new Council Chamber inconveniently small, and, about thirty years after its completion, began to consider where a larger and more magnificent one might be built. The government was now thoroughly established, and it was probably felt that there was some meanness in the retired position, as well as insufficiency in the size, of the Council Chamber on the Rio.

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. In saying that it is the same now in existence, I do not mean that it has undergone no alterations; it has been refitted again and again, and some portions of its walls rebuilt; but in the place and form in which it first stood, it still stands; and by a glance at the position which its windows occupy, the spectator will see at once that whatever can be known respecting the design of the Sea Facade, must be gleaned out of the entries which refer to the building of this Great Council Chamber.

Cadorin quotes two of great importance, made during the progress of the work in 1342 and 1344; then one of 1349, resolving that the works at the Ducal Palace, which had been discontinued during the plague, should be resumed; and finally one in 1362, which speaks of the Great Council Chamber as having been neglected and suffered to fall into “great desolation,” and resolves that it shall be forthwith completed.

The interruption had not been caused by the plague only, but by the conspiracy of Faliero, and the violent death of the master builder. The work was resumed in 1362, and completed within the next three years, at least so far as that Guariento was enabled to paint his Paradise on the walls, so that the building must, at any rate, have been roofed by this time. Its decorations and fittings, however, were long in completion; the paintings on the roof being only executed in 1400.

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 toward the Sea; but there was not then 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 splendor as the Sea Facade. But no such sweeping measure of renovation had been contemplated by the Senate when they first formed the plan of their new Council Chamber. First a single additional room, then a gateway, then a larger room; but all considered merely as necessary additions to the palace, not as involving the entire reconstruction of the ancient edifice. The exhaustion of the treasury, and the shadows upon the political horizon, rendered it more imprudent to incur the vast additional expense which such a project involved; and the Senate, fearful of itself, and desirous to guard against the weakness of its own enthusiasm, passed a decree, like the effort of a man fearful of some strong temptation to keep his thoughts averted from the point, of danger. It was a decree, not merely that the old palace should not be rebuilt, but that no one should propose rebuilding it. The feeling of the desirableness of doing so was too strong to permit fair discussion, and the Senate knew that to bring forward such a motion was to carry it.

The decree, thus passed in order to guard against their own weakness, forbade any one to speak of rebuilding the old palace, under the penalty of a thousand ducats. But they had rated their own enthusiasm too low; there was a man among them whom the loss of a thousand ducats could not deter from proposing what he believed to be for the good of the state. Some excuse was given him for bringing forward the motion, by a fire which occurred in 1419, and which injured both the Church of St. Mark’s, and part of the old palace fronting the Piazzetta. What followed, I shall relate in the words of Sanuto.

“Therefore they set themselves with all diligence and care to repair and adorn sumptuously, first God’s house; but in the Prince’s house things went on more slowly, for it did not please the Doge to restore it in the form in which it was before; and they could not rebuild it altogether in a better manner, so great was the parsimony of these old fathers; because it was forbidden by laws, which condemned in a penalty of a thousand ducats any one who should propose to throw down the old palace, and to rebuild it more richly and with greater expense.

“But the Doge, who was magnanimous, and who desired above all things what was honor-able to the city, had the thousand ducats carried into the Senate Chamber, and then pro-posed that the palace should be rebuilt; saying: that, since the late fire had ruined in great part the Ducal habitation (not only his own private palace, but all the places used for public business), this occasion was to be taken for an admonishment sent from God, that they ought to rebuild the palace more nobly, and in a way more befitting the greatness to which, by God’s grace, their dominions had reached; and that his motive in proposing this was neither ambition, nor selfish interest; that, as for ambition, they might have seen in the whole course of his life, through so many years, that he had never done anything for ambition, either in the city, or in foreign business; but in all his actions had kept justice first in his thoughts, and then the advantage of the state, and the honor of the Venetian name; and that, as far as regarded his private interest, if it had not been for this accident of the fire, he would never have thought of changing anything in the palace into either a more sumptuous or a more honorable form; and that during the many years in which he had lived in it, he had never endeavored to make any change, but had always been content with it as his predecessors had left it; and that he knew well that, if they took in hand to build it as he exhorted and besought. them, being now very old, and broken down with many toils, God would call him to another life before the walls were raised a pace from the ground. And that therefore they might perceive that he did not advise them to raise this building for his own convenience, but only for the honor of the city and its Dukedom; and that the good of it would never be felt by him, but by his successors.”

“Then he said, that `in order, as he had always done, to observe the laws, he had brought with him the thousand ducats which had been appointed as the penalty for proposing such a measure, so that he might prove openly to all men that it was not his own advantage that he sought, but the dignity of the state.’ ” There was no one (Sanuto goes on to tell us) who ventured, or desired to oppose the wishes of the Doge; and the thousand ducats were unanimously devoted to the expenses of the work. “And they set themselves with much diligence to the work; and the palace was begun in the form and manner in which it is at present seen; but, as Mocenigo * had prophesied, not long after, he ended his life, and not only did not see the work brought to a close, but hardly even begun.”

There are one or two expressions in the above extracts which, if they stood alone, might lead the reader to suppose that the whole palace had been thrown down and rebuilt. We must however remember, that, at this time, the new Council Chamber, which had been one hundred years in building, was actually unfinished, the council had not yet sat in it; and it was just as likely that the Doge should then propose to destroy and rebuild it, as in this year, 1853, it is that any one should propose in our House of Commons to throw down the new Houses of Parliament, under the title of the “old palace,” and rebuild them.

It was in the year 1422 that the decree passed to rebuild the palace; Mocenigo died in the following year, and Francesco Foscari was elected in this room. 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, according to the “Caroldo Chronicle”; the 23d, which is probably correct, by an anonymous MS., No. 60, in the Correr Museum; 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.

The central epoch of her life was past; the decay had already begun; I date its commencement from the death of Mocenigo. A year had not yet elapsed since that great Doge had been called to his account; his patriotism, always sincere, had been in this instance mistaken; in his zeal for the honor of future Venice, he had forgotten what was due to the Venice of long ago. A thousand palaces might be built upon her burdened islands, but none of them could taken the place, or recall the memory, of that Which was first built upon her unfrequented shore. It fell; and, as if it had been the talisman of fortune, the city never flourished again.

I have no intention of following out, in their intricate details, the operations which were begun under Foscari and continued under succeeding Doges till the palace assumed its present form, for I am not in this work concerned, except by occasional reference, with the architecture of the fifteenth century; 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.

Some remnants of the Ziani Palace were perhaps still left between the two extremities of the Gothic Palace; or, as is more probable, the last stones of it may have been swept away after the fire of 1419, and replaced by new apartments for the Doge. But whatever buildings, old or new, stood on this spot at the time of the completion of the Ports della Carta were destroyed by another great fire in 1479, together with so much of the palace on the Rio that, tho 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 toward the court and canal.

The palace was not long permitted to remain in 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 debated 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, and they form one of the most important series of documents connected with the Ducal Palace.

I can not help feeling some childish pleasure in the accidental resemblance to my own name in that of the architect whose opinion was first given in favor of the ancient fabric, Giovanni Rusconi. Others, especially Palladio, wanted to pull down the old palace, and execute designs of their own; but the best architects in Venice, and, to his immortal honor, chiefly Francesco Sansovino, energetically pleaded for the Gothic pile, and prevailed. It was successfully repaired, and Tintoret painted his noblest picture on the wall from which the Paradise of Guariento had withered before the flames.

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 pal-ace, 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.