The so-called Palazzo Ducale (Doge's palace)

Doge's palace in 1500
The palacius in the Venice "Venetie MD" view (generally attributed to Jacopo de'Barbari, around 1500)

Brief history

In contrast to Andrea Palladio's architectural work in Venice, Goethe did not value the medieval venetian architecture. This becomes clear when reading his description of a court process in the Doge's palace in his "Italienische Reise", where the architecture of the most important profane edifice in Venice is not mentioned at all. Around the middle of the 19th century, John Ruskin was the first who fully recognized the value of the palace. Having dedicated a whole chapter to the Doge's palace (like to St. Marks church and Torcello), he was also the first to describe the iconology of the sculptural decoration and the interior decoration.
This can only be a brief history of the building1. A first "Castello Ducale", erected under Doge Angelo Partecipazio (Partecipazzo) in the 9th century, was still built of wood. In 976 it burnt down during a revolution against the Doge Candiano; but under the rule of Pietro Orseolo a new fortress with three towers and a surrounding wall was rebuilt. From 1172-78, doge Sebastiano Ziani, surely the most important medieval planner of Venice, let create a new palace. Although the towers were kept, the Ziani palace, having a portico and a loggia, was not a fortress any more.

Palazzo Comunale
corner of the Doge's palace on the piazzetta

The growth of the Maggior Consiglio (Great Council) beyond thousand members led to the planning of a totally new palace. In 1292, the government decided to rebuild the hall towards the Rio di Palazzo, and from 1301-1309 the Sala dello Scrutino (destroyed by the fire in 1577) was created. A certain Basseggio was mentioned as the proto of this new, "modern" palace that does not show byzantine forms any more. After his death in 1354, the fenissimo maistro taiapietra Filippo Calendario was named as his successor. Until today, the scholars were not able to find facts on Calendario.2. One year later, Calendario was executed due to his participation in the Falier conspiracy. The rebuilding stopped and was not resumed before 1362. In 1365, Guariento painted his "Paradise" on the eastern wall of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, but the first assembly of the Great Council was held on July, 30, 1419.
After the southern part towards the "Molo" had been completed, the rebuilding of the Piazzetta wing was decided in 1422. Two years later, the last parts of Ziani's palace were pulled down. While the forms of the Piazzetta façade follow the model of the southern façade, the northern end of the wing towards St. Mark's church is marked by the so-called Porta della Carta, a monumental gate in rich late-gothic forms. On November 10, 1438, the contract with Giovanni and Bartolomeo Buon was signed, and the portal was built from 1439 on. But still in 1442, some parts were missing.


southern façade
The composition of the lower parts consists of two major elements: a lower gallery with 17 pointed arches and a height of 5,76 metres and a second gallery with pointed arches and quadrilobes. A large wall surface forms the upper floor, perforated (besides small oculi) only by seven major windows. Tracery can today only be found in the two eastern windows, but the so-called Barbaro map clearly shows that initially all windows had traceries before the fire in 1577. It was again John Ruskin who rediscovered that fact and wrote the delightful anecdote:
Mr Brown recommended me one man as the only one who knew anything of those connected with the library in the Ducal Palace. I asked hom, among other matters, whether the windows, which have now no tracery in them, ever had any. Never, he said - there was not the slightest trace of it. These windows require ladders to get up to them and are difficult in the opening - so it struck me as quite possible that nobody might have taken the trouble to look. Yesterday I went for this special purpose - got the library steps and opened all the windows, one after another, round the palace. I found the bases of the shafts of the old tracery - the holes for the bolts which had fastened it - the marks of its exact diameter on the wall - and finally, in a window at the back, of which I believe not one of the people who have written on the place know so much as the existence, one of its spiral shafts left - capital and all 3

plan of St. Mark's Square and the Doge's palace,
from: Ruskin, John: The Stones of Venice, London 1853, tom. II.
c: Porta della Carta; gs: Scala dei Giganti, S: Ponte dei Sospiri

Similar to the private gothic palace, a complex "quadratic" scheme of measures was used4. The ground floor columns, carrying the vaultage, do not have bases. From 1577 to the massive 19th century restoration campaign, the five eastern arcades towards the Ponte della Paglia had been bricked up. Besides trilobe ornaments, the quadrilobes still have decorative stone balls, the so-called palle - a motive that was adapted by the authors of many private gothic palaces. The upper floor wall pattern in istrian limestone and "rosso di Verona" stone was also taken over (though only imitated as exterior frescoes, so-called regalzier) by architects of private buildings like Palazzo Cappello.
Being much engaged in Venice, the german scholarship was able to prove a former intensive polychromy in blue and gold during the 1990s restorations.5.
western façade
The Piazzatta side follows the southern façade, but the fact that the central balcony's pilasters are cranked with the cornices evokes a certain horizontalism. An enforced column and a sculpture of Justitia-Venetia in the first floor loggia mark the cut surface of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio wall with the western façade. Despite a stratigraphy having been made in December, 2004, it is still unknown whether the columns initially had bases. Not only were the columns and capitals replaced during the 19th century restorations, but also new limestone plates were integrated.

Doge's palace Sculpture photo gallery
Doge's palace The fire of 1577 and the eastern wing


1 cf. Benzoni, Gino: Da Palazzo Ducale. Studi sul Quattro-Settecento veneto. Venezia 1999; Romanelli, Giandomenico: Palazzo Ducale : storia e restauri. San Giovanni Lupatoto 2004.
Fortunately, modern scholars such as Huse, Norbert: Venedig, Munich 2005 or Lermer, Andrea: Der gotische "Dogenpalast" in Venedig : Baugeschichte und Skulpturenprogramm des Palatium Comunis Venetiarum, Munich 2005, largely abandon the misleading denomination "Palazzo Ducale" and replace it with Palazzo Comunale or Palatium Comunis. In fact, the building was much more than only the Doge's residence (which was located in the eastern wing) and comprised rooms for the legislative organs of the Venetian Republic, such as the Great Council (Maggior Consiglio).
2 Manno, Antonio: Palazzo Ducale. Guida al Museo dell'Opera. Venezia 1996, p. 10
3 after Hewison, Robert "Forse nessuno si è mai dato la pena di guardare": la ricerca di John Ruskin sull'architettura veneziana, in: Valcanover, Francesco; Wolters, Wolfgang (ed.): L' Architettura Gotica Veneziana, Venezia 2000 (pp. 243-251) p. 247
4 cf. Diruf, Hermann: Paläste Venedigs vor 1500, München 1990, p. 37s and passim
5 cf. Schuller, Manfred: Le facciate medievali del Palazzo Ducale a Venezia, in: Valcanover/Wolters (cit.) pp. 351-432. and the official site of the Doge's palace s.v. "Restauri".


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