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  • Writer's pictureJack Dykstra, PhD

A Brief History of Palazzo Ducale (Doge's Palace) in Venice

What is Palazzo Ducale?

Palazzo Ducale, also known as Doge’s Palace, is a gothic palace that was founded in the 9th century and once served as a residence for the doge, the most senior official in the Venetian Republic.

Palazzo Ducale

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Palazzo Ducale History

More than any other, this building tells Venice’s story. Carved into the stone arches, columns, and capitals of the Palazzo Ducale (or Doge’s Palace) are traces of the Republic’s astonishing mercantile wealth and naval might, its sustained mutual interaction with the Muslim world, and its unique and pioneering interpretation of the republican political system, as well as that system’s infamous modes of surveillance and inquisition. It’s a remarkable building, at once a deliberative forum, a spectacular and opulent palace, and a grim, harrowing prison. To appreciate fully this vast and complex structure requires many hours and, if possible, multiple visits. Indeed, much ink has been spilled on a variety of subjects and stories which originate or take place here: the election of the doge and disputes about restricting his authority; the 1297 ‘locking’ of the Great Council, which transformed Venice from a democracy into an oligarchy; or its fêted interior decoration.

In the interests of concision, perhaps a good place to start is the building’s most famous aspect: its stunning architecture, especially its façades. Catching sight of them – or being caught in their splendour - visitors to Venice would have been astounded. To start, travellers from northern Europe and nearby cities would have been accustomed to fortified palaces, something conspicuously lacking here. The Palazzo Ducale was founded in 810, when Doge Agnello Partecipazio transferred his seat of power from the island of Malamocco to Venice. The city’s great medieval planner, Doge Sebastiano Ziani, made major repairs to it in the 12th century, establishing the rough layout of St Mark’s Square. By the time substantial renovations were necessary in the 14th century, a fortress was superfluous: Venice was immensely wealthy and powerful, a maritime fortress of its own. Instead, the palace functioned as an iridescent gateway to the city. Rather than hard walls, defensible crenelations, and strong gates, the Palazzo Ducale has a ground-floor arcade with an open loggia on the first floor through which light pours in. The Doge’s Palace proclaimed a confidence and security even greater than that of a well-defended castle. Venice was so robust that its citadel could afford flowing stone, luxurious pink Veronese marble, and an entrance right on the waterfront.

For visitors in the 19th century, the influences on this unique building were obvious: a set of architectural and cultural influences, mainly Islamic, generalised with breathless haziness as ‘the East’. In 1844, English writer Charles Dickens wrote to his friend John Forster that ‘The wildest visions of the Arabian nights are nothing to the piazza of Saint Mark… Opium couldn’t build such a place, and enchantment couldn’t shadow it forth in a vision’. Discarding the enchantment and focusing on the artistic links to Byzantium and the great medieval Islamic caliphates and cultures, 19th-century English art critic and radical John Ruskin wrote in his mighty Stones of Venice that ‘during the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries the architecture of Venice seems to have been formed on the same model, and is almost identical with that of Cairo under the caliphs’. Then, from the late 12th century, came a new style ‘much more distinctly Arabian; the shafts become more slender, and the arches consistently pointed’; this, alleges Ruskin, was an era when ‘the Arab [architect] rapidly introduces characters half Persepolitan, half Egyptian, into the shafts and capitals: in his intense love of excitement he points the arch and writhes it into extravagant foliations; he banishes the animal imagery, and invents an ornamentation of his own (called Arabesque) to replace it… All is done with exquisite refinement’. The apotheosis of the marrying of East and West, of Roman, Lombard, and Arab, was, according to Ruskin, the Doge’s Palace: ‘the central building of the world’.

As you stare at the exterior of the palace, take time to admire the sumptuous curves of its stone. Ruskin again: ‘a bending arch, an entire denial of the severe structural laws of pediment and architrave, and external application of fantastic or arabesque colour decoration, with windows of trellis work, leading… to the earliest forms of Gothic tracery’. The Venetian Gothic is as deeply indebted to Islamic Mediterranean architecture as to Byzantine buildings, and that debt appears most gloriously in the pointed ogee arches and lozenge-patterned walls of the Palazzo Ducale. More recently, the architectural historian Deborah Howard has argued that this influence was driven by, amongst manifold connections and exchanges, Venetians travelling to the Mosque of St Athanasius in Alexandria and the Iwan al-Kabir in Cairo.

Influence, however, must not be confused with slavish replication. The Doge’s Palace is uniquely Venetian – just study the interior paintings depicting Venice’s victory over the Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. It highlights above all Venice’s place in the Mediterranean as a maritime republic facing two ways, acting as an interface between East and West.

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