DM and MM's Italy/France 2012 Diary

Day 13 - Doge's Palace

Thursday, 10 May, 2012

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We're sitting in Cavatappi having lunch: a panino caprese for M. and I'm trying some cicchetti with an ombra of white wine, "manzane". The cicchetti consists of a prawn, zucchini, carrot, and celery salad, a piece of eggplant parmigiana, a sort of small quiche with peas in it, another sort of quiche with ratatouille, a baked egg mixed with herbs, and a small tart filled with a creamy salad and sardines. And it's all really good.


We are sitting in the laundromat on Campiello Muneghe, a short walk from our hotel, washing our clothes. We just managed to get them into the dryer for a 30 minute cycle before the cutoff time of 22:00, since the place closes at 22:30.

This morning we woke up about 07:30 and struggled out of bed. We had to have breakfast and get moving in time to be at the Doge's Palace for our 09:55 "Segreti Itinerari" guided tour, and the tickets I'd bought off the website from home said we should be there half an hour before. General sleepiness and a hearty breakfast of muesli, yoghurt, a chocolate croissant for me, and some bread with Vegemite for M. meant the morning routine took us through to almost 09:00 before we left the hotel.

We made a dash across Venice, electing to take a route through Dorsoduro and across the Ponte dell'Accademia to get to San Marco. There was no time to stop for anything except a couple of hasty snaps of morning scenes too good to pass up, with the misty light illuminating Santa Maria della Salute and the Grand Canal towards Piazzetta San Marco from the bridge. As we arrived at the palace, an enormous ocean liner, the Sea Princess, was arriving just off shore, heading down the Giudecca Canal. It was astonishing seeing it so close to shore.

Salute at sunrise
Morning light on the Grand Canal, from Ponte dell'Accademia

We arrived at the palace in good time and checked in with our printed website tickets. The woman at the ticket office scanned them and gave us proper tickets and also stickers to place on our shirts to show we were on the super secret tour. We went to the tour assembly area to discover we were the first ones there. This was inside the courtyard of the palace, so we got a good look at the interior architecture. I noticed signs indicating that backpacks weren't allowed inside the palace, and a guardarobe, so I checked in my camera bag and kept only the camera with one lens attached. This was despite other signs indicating no photos allowed inside, but I figured given the loose Italian interpretation of rules, that our guide might well tell us we could take photos, and I'd kick myself if I didn't have my camera with me.

Doge's Palace courtyard
Courtyard of the Doge's Palace

As it turned out, this was a good decision, since our guide, a small woman named Elisabetta, did indeed say there were places on the tour where we could take photos, though not everywhere. We could take photos looking out through windows, but not of the interiors of many of the rooms. She started by giving us a talk about the history of the palace while we were standing in the courtyard, showing us the different brickwork and decorations of the various additions over the centuries as the building took its current form. She showed us one of the "Lion's Mouths" - a relief carving of a human (not lion) face on a wall of the courtyard, with an open mouth hole through which citizens could post written notes, anonymously denouncing other people for crimes. The catch is that if the denounced person was innocent, and the authorities figured out who had denounced them, the denouncer would receive punishment as if they had committed the crime in question.

Dobbing mouth
Elisabetta showing us one of the Lion's Mouths

Our tour group consisted of 22 people and Elisabetta led us up the famous Golden Staircase (which was on the regular tour itinerary of the palace), to the Square Room, which was where people visiting the palace on business would wait to meet with dignitaries. She said that up to this point, all of the rooms were decorated, because they had to impress visitors.

Golden Staircase
Climbing the Golden Staircase

Next, she led us through a locked door which she opened with a key, into the more secret parts of the palace. These were the chambers where the various officials performed their duties and were not seen by visitors. In stark contrast, these rooms were very plain, with bare wooden walls and ceilings, relieved only by the occasional small mirror. Also, the ceiling was very low, only a little above my head. This was because the regular sized floor had been cut in half vertically to fit a mezzanine in to increase the available office space. And since nobody ever visited these rooms but the people who worked there, nobody ever knew that they'd squeezed in another floor like this.

Elisabetta told us that the bureaucrats who worked here were elected from the population and only worked for the government for short terms of a few months up to a year, before being sent back to their previous jobs. This was to prevent any minor bureaucrat from learning too many state secrets and being a potential informant for foreign powers. Another room was the archive room, in which scribes copied official documents on finances and military planning and treaties with other nations and so on in triplicate. But they only hired scribes who were illiterate - they copied text merely by coping the shapes. Again this was to prevent them learning enough to be valuable informants. The copies were stored elsewhere in Venice to reduce the risk of the information being lost to fire or other disaster. Elisabetta said that the copies were poor because of the illiterate scribes, but they served the purpose and in the 600 or so years of the Venetian Republic, no records were ever lost completely. The extant documents are now stored in a modern archive elsewhere in Venice, the third largest historical document archive in Europe, after the Vatican and Vienna. We also saw the office of the supreme chancellor, second only to the Doge in rank and elected for life. To prevent his corruption and turning spy, he was paid the highest salary of any official in Europe, equivalent to about €800,000 a year. So it was impossible for any other country to pay him off for a higher price to spy for them.

St Mark's rear view
View of Basilica San Marco from a window of the Doge's Palace

From the working rooms of the bureaucrats, Elisabetta took us into the adjoining prison and torture rooms. The torture room was a wooden room with a simple rope and pulley hanging from the centre, with a mezzanine balcony around half of it. Elisabetta explained that the torture was mostly psychological. There were no knives or fire - fire would have been bad in rooms made of wood - just the rope with which prisoners were suspended by their arms tied behind their backs. In this position their shoulders and backs would hurt and they would be left there for hours. This all happened in the middle of the night, after a night time arrest without any explanation being given as to what crime was suspected. The torture occurred in darkness so they prisoner couldn't see the faces of the judges and torturers around them. And in adjacent rooms, connected by barred windows, were other prisoners, and also people who were hired to scream hideously. So the torture victim, who had no idea what sort of things happened in the prisons, was subjected to the whispers of other victims and the screams of people being put through what could be presumed to be later stages of torture. Records showed this method was incredibly successful in eliciting confessions from people.

We then moved on to some of the prison cells. These were cells in which nobles were kept, in the palace itself. Other cells, more dank and horrible for the commoners, were across the canal in the so-called "new" prison, reached by the famous Bridge of Sighs. The noble cells were wood lined in some attempt to regulate temperatures. But the ceilings were only about 170 centimetres high, which meant many prisoners could not stand up. This was true of the most famous prisoner, Giacomo Casanova, who was very tall at 190 centimetres. While we stooped in Casanova's original cell, Elisabetta told us some of the story of how he wound up in prison because of his dalliances with many foreign women, which made him suspiciously like a spy. He tried to escape by digging through the wooden floor with an iron bar he found while outside his cell on ten minute "standing up" breaks. He was almost through when he was given the good news that he was being moved to a nicer cell! His guard Lorenzo discovered the almost complete escape hole and kept a careful eye on Casanova from then on, so he couldn't try the same trick again. But Lorenzo couldn't tell anyone about the escape attempt because he'd get into trouble himself for allowing Casanova the standing up breaks in which he found the iron bar.

Campanile and Statues
View of the Campanile of Piazza San Marco, from inside the Doge's Palace

In the new cell Casanova befriended a priest in an adjacent cell and arranged by subterfuge involving blackmailing Lorenzo into delivering a gift of a bible and a plate of gnocchi balanced on top of it so Lorenzo couldn't open the bible to see the iron bar inside, to deliver the iron bar to the priest. Now the priest could dig up to the attic, then down into Casanova's cell to get them both out. Then they descended some stairs, ending up in the Square Room in the middle of the night, with all the doors out locked. A guard discovered them as the sun rose in the morning, but since Casanova was dressed as a noble and had a priest with him, the guard assumed they were visitors who had accidentally been locked in the room overnight and simply let them out the front door of the palace! At least that's the story as told in Casanova's memoirs. Elisabetta expressed her own doubts about some of it, but said it was a good story anyway.

Next we went up to the attic, immediately under the lead lined roof. This was noticeably hotter than the lower floors, and Elisabetta said that some prisoners were kept up here, where it was stinking hot, up to 45°C in summer, and below freezing in winter. But she said it was still better than the new prison, since at least here there was no humidity or standing water from the canal and no rats. The attic now was partly a display of the armoury of the Venetian Republic, with lots of swords and pole arms and maces shown in glass cases. Elisabetta said it still got so hot up here in summer that this part of the tour is not open then. At the far side of the attic room we were in was a doorway leading to the attic space above the great hall, where we got to stand on a part of the catwalk above the ceiling of the enormous hall below, right above the famous Tintoretto painting Il Paradiso.

Palace roof cavity
Inside the roof cavity of the Palace, above the Great Hall

Elisabetta then led us down to the inquisitorial judgment chambers. These were decorated rooms in which prisoners were brought to face trial in front of the judges of the Republic. There were a couple of these rooms, and the last we ended up in was for the most serious crimes, involving the death penalty. She showed us the beautiful painting on the ceiling and said that Casanova's original cell was right above it, so if the story about digging through the floor was true, he would have emerged right there, into the death sentencing room!

This ended the Itinerari Segreti tour, which we found intensely fascinating and insightful into the workings of the Venetian Republic. Elisabetta left us back in the Square Room and said we could go back downstairs to the Doge's quarters which were the first part of the normal unguided palace tour, and from there do all of that for ourselves.

(written next day)

The Doge's quarters was a set of about a dozen large rooms, spectacularly decorated with gold and paintings and stucco work. The first, largest room we went into was called the Shield Room because of a large stucco shield decoration on the wall, but it was most notable for having enormous maps of the known world in great detail on the walls, plus two enormous globes, each one as tall as me, one with a map of the world and the other a star map. We saw the west coast of Australia on the world globe, so despite their obvious antiquity these must have been relatively recent additions, from 1800 or so. The other rooms were less immediately amazing, but contained paintings on the walls and ceilings by artists such as Tintoretto, Veronese, Bassano, and so on. Veronese was easy to pick out, with his use of brilliant blue paint for skies. Scenes were mostly mythologically based, with some portraits of people, presumably Doges, for variety. This part of the tour was a bit crowded, with several tour groups being shown around by guides.

From there we went upstairs again and saw the council and senate chambers, including the room for the Council of Ten. These were large rooms with wooden furnishings for the seating of the relevant personages around the walls, but presumably the furniture in the middle of the rooms had been removed to allow space for visitors to move through. Next we went through a series of other rooms where trials and other judgements were held, and another archive room. There seemed to be a lot of space devoted to the process of justice and trial, including a room just for appeals. Finally came a room devoted to explaining the construction of Tintoretto's painting Il Paradiso, which was commissioned as a competition after fire destroyed the Great Hall and it was decided to remove the old fresco and replace it with a painting on the same theme. The old fresco was held here, mostly intact, so we saw that, as well as small reproductions of the five or so designs for the replacement painting by various artists.

Then we entered the giant Great Hall itself, where the council of 200 or so people met to administer the city. This is one of the largest rooms in Europe, and I think the largest with no internal columns to support the roof. On the east wall was Tintoretto's giant masterpiece, Il Paradiso, but arrayed around the rest of the walls plus the ceiling were dozens of other large works by him and other master Venetian painters. Paradiso itself was too busy and dark and brooding to make that much of an impression beyond its sheer size and scope. Some of the other, brighter paintings in the room were nicer. Despite having a dozen or more large tour groups and hundreds of separate visitors wandering around in it, there was plenty of open space to walk around in.

Condemned view
Crossing the Bridge of Sighs, looking out through a window to the Grand Canal

From here, we left by a very tight passage into the prison section of the building and then into a passage leading to the famous Bridge of Sighs. This bridge leads across the canal behind the palace to the new prison, where commoner prisoners were kept. The bridge is divided into two side-by-side passages and we went across in the left passage. The prisons were made of white stone, probably travertine, with thick iron grilles in appropriate windows. Cells were accessed by short wooden doors, only about 120 centimetres high. Some walls had holes in them about the size of a head, so we could see into the cells, which were tiny. There was a quick tour route of the prisons, but we chose the complete tour route, which led downstairs past dozens of cells until we were close to water level, but I don't think we went to the lowest level, where I've read that the cells actually flooded sometimes. The palace had been fairly crowded with visitors and tour groups, but it seemed the groups didn't come on this full tour of the prisons, and most other people didn't either, so for a lot of the way we were actually alone in the prison corridors, which made it very atmospheric. We eventually rejoined the short tour route and then back across the Bridge of Sighs via the other passage, this time giving us a view out towards the Grand Canal side.

New Prison
Corridor with cell doors in the new prison

This concluded the tour of the palace, leading us through the book shop on the way out. We'd seen so much amazing stuff that I considered buying a book to remember it all, but figured I could always look it all up on the net later, so we didn't bother. With both the guided and unguided tours, we'd been in the palace for several hours and it was now about 13:00, so we were getting hungry. Being nearby, we walked over to Cavatappi again, since we liked it the first time. This time I tried the cicchetti, as detailed above at the start of today's entry. The little pieces of various mixed dishes were very good and we felt like we'd really found somewhere nice to have lunch.

Santa Maria dei Miracoli
Interior of Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli

After eating, we took a leisurely walking route back to our hotel, heading north first to the Chiesa di Santa Maria Formosa. M. had had enough of churches, so only I paid the €3 to go inside and have a look. I'm not sure it was worth it, actually, as the decorations were nothing special and there were some interesting paintings, but no stand outs or works by major artists. A bit further north we came to Chiesa di Santa Maria dei Miracoli, which is a small box-shaped church made of coloured marble. Here we both paid to enter and found the interior to be small, box-shaped, and made of coloured marble. On the altar was the allegedly miraculous painting of the Madonna and child by Niccolò di Pietro, which was originally commissioned by a local noble for a simple outdoor shrine in 1480. But supposedly it wept and parishioners flocked to see it and then demanded that a suitable church be built to house it. The result was this amazing box of marble, which also contains several paintings and statues of Saints Francis and Clare.

From the Rialto
View of the Grand Canal from Ponte di Rialto

We meandered our way home across the Ponte di Rialto, crossing (and in fact seeing) this most famous bridge for the first time on this trip. At one point on the way home, as we were crossing a small canal, a gondola went past with a wedding couple in it, as well as two photographers, who were busily snapping shots of the bride and groom with scenic bits of canals and bridges behind them. It's not the first wedding we've spotted here in Venice either. Earlier in the week we saw two gondolas go by with at least three brides and grooms in each one! Some sort of group wedding presumably.

Across the canal
Canalside dining, near Ponte di Rialto

Back at our hotel we rested for a while and freshened up before heading out for dinner. This time we tried a place near our hotel, where Tony said he'd eaten and had a good meal. We got a table inside and decided to try a risotto. Everywhere where risotto is on the menu it specifies that it must be a minimum order for two people, and this was no exception. The menu had a risotto with sea bass and zucchini. I asked if there was a risotto of the day not on the menu, and the waitress said no, only what's on the menu, but if we wanted a special risotto they could make it for us. We ordered the sea bass one, and a mixed salad to go with it.

The risotto came in a huge serving dish and the waitress scooped some out for each of us before leaving the half full dish on the table for us. It was nice, very creamy, with a subtle fish flavour. I had the salad with olive oil and balsamic vinegar added from the condiment bottles on the table. Despite a plastic pepper grinder being on the table, the waitress offered us fresh pepper and brought over a wooden grinder, at least twice as tall, for us to use. For dessert I tried a tartufo nero, a ball of chocolate gelato with a core of vanilla, and chopped nuts throughout. I was hoping for the chocolate fondant cake that Tony said he'd had and was really good, but it seemed we picked the wrong one of the two restaurants close to our hotel that he said he'd been to. By the time we left the restaurant, only one other table had just been occupied.

After dinner we headed out again, this time to do laundry at a laundromat not far from the hotel. It was unmanned so we had to sit and watch our stuff, and was open until 22:30, with last wash beginning at 21:30. We got in by a few minutes and started a load, which took a bit under half an hour, allowing us to make the last drying start at 22:00 again by a few minutes. The dryer took 30 minutes, and was supposed to be set for 60°C, but during the cycle it kept flashing up "25°" on the panel. I didn't think much of this until we got our clothes out and they were cold and wet! We couldn't put on another cycle as the laundry was about to close, so we had to take our clothes home wet. We laid them out on all the coathangers and the towel racks in the bathroom to air out overnight. Then we fell into bed, starting to feel exhausted after many days of activity.

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