A doge was the leader of a republic and while other Italian republics also had doges, the title is most recognized as belonging to Venice. Venetian doges were elected for life by the city-state’s aristocracy using a convoluted system that ensured that no one aristocratic family could dominate the government.
It was a 10 step process that went like this: (1) 30 members of the Great Council (counselors to the doge made up of anywhere from about 100 to over 2000 members at various times over history, that included aristocrats as well as well-to-do non-aristocrats) were chosen by lottery. (2) Those 30 were then reduced to nine, by lottery. (3) The nine chose 40 members of the Great Council, (4) who were then reduced to 12, by lottery. (5) The 12 chose 25, (6) who were reduced to nine, by lottery. (7) The nine chose 45, (8) who were reduced to 11, by lottery. (9) The 11 chose 41, and (10) it was the 41 who elected the doge. A man had to have 25 out of the 41 votes to become doge.
“Thomas Jefferson loved Venice,” said our local, Not-Silvana guide. “He admired the checks and balances of Venice’s government and adapted it for the US government.” Imagine if Jefferson had adapted the Venetian way of choosing a doge to choosing a president. [Insert your favorite political crack here.]
The current iteration of the Doge’s Palace was started around 1340 and added to and updated over the years. It housed the Doge’s residence, government offices, courts and a prison.
The staircase in the photo above is called the Giants Staircase because of the two large statues at the top. On the left is Mars and on the right is Neptune and they represent Venice’s power on land (Mars) and sea (Neptune). It was the main entrance into the palace, where all the important people went in. We didn’t go that way.
We went up some small plain stairs, down that colonnade and up some stairs for our first stop: the public rooms of the palace. It’s where the Grand Council met.
There are portraits of all of the doges going around the top of the council room, just beneath the ceiling. See the black banner in the photo below, to the right of the corner? That where Marino Faliero, the 55th Doge, belongs. He was appointed in 1354 and less than a year later, tried to seize power and become sole ruler. He was the only doge to ever try and he failed spectacularly. The Latin on the banner translates to: “This space is reserved for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes.” He was beheaded at the top of the Giants Staircase, symbolic because it’s where the doges’ coronation takes place.
From the public rooms, we went through the Bridge of Sighs to the prison. Here’s a photo of the bridge, that I took from the outside, later in the day.
It connects the interrogation rooms in the palace to the prison, and legend has it that Lord Byron named it the Bridge of Sighs because he imagined that’s what prisoners would be doing as they caught a last glimpse of Venice on their way to the cells. I imagine them screaming and crying as they were dragged down the hallway, but then I’m not a Romantic era poet.
The most famous of the Doge palace prisoners, and only one of two people to ever escape it, was Giacomo Casanova. Casanova was born into a theatrical family and was, at various times in his life, a lawyer, a seminarian, a soldier, a gambler and a violinist. He was most famous, however, for being a womanizer and it was for this, as well as for claiming to be a magician and duping aristocrats out of money, that he was imprisoned. Not long into his five-year sentence, however, he noticed that a fellow prisoner, Father Marino Balbi, was allowed to plaster his cell wall with religious pictures. Casanova recruited Father Balbi into an escape scheme, which took advantage of the fact that their cells were just below the roof. Casanova somehow got hold of an iron spike and passed it to Father Balbi, who then chipped an escape hole into his ceiling and through the roof, covering the hole with his religious pictures while he worked. You’d think that it would strike the guards odd that Father Balbi had moved his pictures from the wall to the ceiling, but it didn’t. They made their hole, escaped, and lived to write about it.
We got the very basic tour, but I understand that there’s very good “Secret Itinerary” tour that takes you in and out of hidden doors and to back rooms that aren’t on the regular tour. After the Secret Itinerary tour, you’re free to wander the public rooms on your own.
Our guide pointed out a group peeking out from a passage behind a secret door.
I just love exploring back rooms and hidden passages, so I was beyond jealous. But that’s okay. Because I will be back and I will take that tour. All it’ll take is more time and money.