Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale)

Venice, begun 1340





The Doge's Palace in Venice is located between San Marco and the waterfront. Sansovino's Library of San Marco was later built across the Piazzetta from it.


Construction History

The Doge's Palace was begun in 1340 to replace an earlier civil palace built by Doge Sebastiano Ziani in the 1170s.  The Ziani palace occupied the same site as the current palace, and, like it, consisted of buildings in a U-shape configuration whose open end abutted the cathedral, forming a large courtyard.  Over the next two and a half centuries, three new wings, which incorporated some parts of the Ziani palace, were built in a sequence so that only one was under construction at a time.


1340-1410s: Molo wing. First to be built was the wing facing the waterfront beside the Molo, which means jetty or quay in Italian.  The largest of the palace's meeting halls, the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, is located on the third story of this wing.  The right end of this wing incorporated a tower from the Ziani palace.  As marked by the last two windows on the right, which are lower than the others, the tower's stories are different:  there are two short stories rather than one tall one.  


1424-38: Piazzetta wing. Next to be built was the wing facing the Piazzetta, which was built rapidly. 


1438-42: Porta della Carta. The Porta della Carta, which closed the gap between the palace and the Cathedral, served as a formal entrance to the palace.  It was commissioned by Doge Francesco Foscari to Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon. 


c.1442-76: Foscari Porch. A corridor abutting the Cathedral's right transept formed the north end of the courtyard.  


1483-1553: East wing. The East wing was damaged by a fire in 1483 and was rebuilt under Antonio Rizzo, followed by Pietro Lombardo in 1498.  The new wing did incorporate some of the old structure, although likely very little.  


1483-mid-16th century: Courtyard. The courtyard was designed and begun by Antonio Rizzo in 1483 and completed by others in the middle of the next century. 


1577: Post-fire rebuilding. Fires in 1574 and 1577 destroyed much of the palace, and the upper stories had to be rebuilt.  The building committee, who wished to symbolize the state's political continuity over the centuries, chose to rebuild the palace as it had been. Jacopo Sansovino agreed with this decision, but Andrea Palladio and many other architects of the day urged the committee to rebuild it in the new classical style.  Palladio, who could find no merit in its Gothic and Byzantine forms, considered its design to be top-heavy and unstable due to the thick walls on the upper story and the thinner columns that supported them. 





Residence of the Doge

The Palazzo Ducale, as the palace is called, was the official residence of the doge, the most powerful individual in the Venetian government.


Governmental Assembly Halls

The Palace contained a number of assembly halls for the various government councils.  These included the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Grand Council) in the Molo wing, the Sala dello Scrutinio in the Piazzetta wing, and the Senate, the Collegio, and the Council of Ten in the East wing.


Law Courts and Prison

The Palace of Justice, the Quarantia, was located in the Piazzetta wing.


In the sixteenth century, a prison was built across the canal on land that had been annexed in the fifteenth century.  The prison was linked with the Doge's Palace in the seventeenth century by the famous Bridge of Sighs, which is named for the reaction that condemned prisoners must have had on seeing the outside world for the last time.  The prison's most famous inmate was the eighteenth-century Italian lover Casanova, who described his escape in his memoirs.





Overall Design

On the two primary façades, porticoes built of Istrian stone wrap around the lower two stories.  In design, this palace incorporates elements of both the Gothic and Byzantine styles.


Lack of Defensive Features

Venice's naval forces provided the city's defenses at sea, making fortified architecture in the city unnecessary.  Consequently, Venice's civic palace was not defined by defensive features but by the local taste for splendor and ornamentation.  The fancifully shaped crenellations forming the parapet were not intended for use.


Ground-Story Loggia

The use of loggias on the ground story opens the palace to the pedestrian traffic of the Piazzetta and the jetty.


Short thick columns carry the vaulting of the ground-story loggias, which support the palace's front walls.


Second-Story Gallery

The gallery wrapping around the second story, which is taller and more ornate than the ground-story loggia, is entirely different in character.


Inspired by Byzantine models, it consists of a line of columns that are thinner and twice as closely spaced as the columns of the ground story.  They support tracery formed by ogee (double-curve) trefoil (three-lobe) arches carrying quatrefoil (four-lobe) openings within roundels.


The large scale of the moldings and the simplicity of the pattern make this story intelligible from across the lagoon.


Patterned-Stone Facing on Wall Areas

The use of a large expanse of wall above two open stories would give the palace a top-heavy appearance were it not for the lightening effect achieved by the use of a pattern.  A linear pattern of diamonds within diamonds is formed by two contrasting tones of encrusted stone.


Both varieties of stone were imported.  The darker one is red marble from Verona, and the lighter one is Istrian stone from the Istrian peninsula, a Venetian possession across the Adriatic Sea to the east of Venice.


Although the Molo and Piazzetta wings were completed earlier, according to Venetia, citta nobilissima, a publication on Venetian architecture by Jacopo Sansovino's son Francesco, the decorative stone facing was not begun until the reign of Doge Foscari (1423-57).


Third-Story Balconies

On both facings of the third story, the central window opens onto a richly ornamented balcony.  The two balconies, which opened from important meeting rooms, were used for making announcements and conducting public ceremonies.


Disunity between Upper and Lower Levels

On the two main façades, the upper story, formed of large expanses of wall pierced by pointed-arch windows and oculi, is not well integrated with the two lower stories, formed entirely of loggias.


The spacing of the windows of the upper story is unrelated to the spacing of the arches on the lower stories.


The upper and lower levels also differ in whether or not their facings have a central focus.  The balconies give central foci to the third-story facings, but no corresponding features give central foci to the lower-story facings.






The Sala del Maggior Consiglio, served as the meeting room for the full membership of the Grand Council, which included all adult males from the families listed in the Golden Book in 1297.  They elected the doge and upper-level officials of the Senate and Collegio.


Because it was the largest hall in the palace, it was also used for receptions, banquets, and other events requiring a large space.



The Sala del Maggior Consiglio occupies most of the width and all of the depth of the waterfront wing.


When this room had to be rebuilt after the 1577 fire, the council had to meet in warehouses because no other room of the palace was large enough.



The Sala del Maggior Consiglio was lighted by pointed-arch windows that were similar in size and shape to the arched openings of the ground-story arcade.


The windows originally included tracery, but this feature, which had long been out of date, was not rebuilt after the fire in 1577.


Painted Decoration

The 1577 fire destroyed all the original decoration, which included paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Carpaccio, and Titian.  The present decoration includes paintings by Tintoretto, Veronese, and others.


Tintoretto's Paradise is located on the end wall behind the tribunal on the east side, and Veronese's Triumph of Venice occupies the large oval ceiling compartment at the same end.  In Veronese's illusionistic allegory, Venetia is surrounded by the seven Virtues.  Overhead, Fame blows a trumpet and Victory presents a crown, and below, citizens celebrate the power and protection of the Venetian empire.





Thematic Reflections of Palace's Functions

The themes of the sculpture program refer to the palace's legislative and judicial functions.  They were chosen to inspire a sense of duty and fairness in individuals charged with making laws or passing judgment on the accused.


The figures on the capitals of the ground story personify the Virtues.


Allegorical figures of Justice, one of the Four Cardinal Virtues, crown the balconies that project from the upper stories of both the Molo and Piazzetta wings.


Accentuation of Three of Corners

Each of the three corners of the main façades is accentuated by sculpture whose theme concerns justice.


On the corners at the level of the tracery above the second-story columns, archangels serve as guiding spirits.  


The figure groups above the corner supports of the ground story were intended to inspire both fairness and compassion in the judges by including exemplars of wise judgment and reminders of human weaknesses.


SE Corner. The scene at the top of the ground-story corner at the right side of the Molo wing illustrates the Old Testament story of The Drunkenness of Noah. The Archangel Raphael ornaments the top of the next story. 


SW Corner. The subject on the ground story of the left corner of the Molo wing is The Fall, which illustrates Adam and Eve's fall from God's grace after eating the forbidden fruit from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.  They are presented standing under the Tree, and Lucifer, in the form of a serpent, is wrapped around its trunk.  The Archangel Michael crowns the top of the second story. 


NW Corner. The scene presented on the NW corner of the Piazzetta wing is the Judgment of Solomon. Its example of a wise judge was intended to inspire emulation by judges and lawmakers.  Figures personifying the concepts of Virtue and Justice are included within the acanthus leaves of the capital on the ground-story.  The Archangel Gabriel stands on the top of the column on the next story.  





Doge Francesco Foscari

In the fifteenth century, Doge Francesco Foscari, who served as Venice's doge from 1423 to 1457, initiated several important additions to the north end of the palace, which abuts the right transept arm of San Marco.



The north end projects were designed and begun by Giovanni Bon and his son Bartolomeo Bon.  After Doge Foscari's death in 1457, work continued under Bartolomeo, who died around 1464.  This part of the palace was finished under Antonio Rizzo, a sculptor from Verona.


Transitional Style

The additions at the north end exemplify Venice's fifteenth-century period of transition in which late-Gothic forms were being combined with Renaissance forms in a piecemeal manner.


Porta della Carta

The Porta della Carta, which faces the Piazzetta and functions as the main entrance to the palace, occupies the space between the right transept of St. Mark's and the Piazzetta wing of the Doge's Palace.


The new entrance was designed and built by Giovanni Bon and his son Bartolomeo Bon between 1438 and 1442.


The name, which means "Door of the Document," reflects the door's use as an official notice board.


This entrance was also called the Porta d'Oro, the "golden doorway," in reference to the gilding that originally covered it.  The Bon workshop had also played a major role in creating a similarly splendid façade for the Ca' d'Oro a decade earlier.


Foscari Corridor, Porch, and Arch

Behind the Porta della Carta and at a right angle to the Piazzetta wing is a corridor that limits the extent of the courtyard’s open space.  It was originally closed along the courtyard side and later opened as a loggia.


Above the final section of the corridor is a tower, which reflects both the Gothic and Renaissance styles.  The new Renaissance style is reflected on the lower part by the use of supercolumnation, and the old Gothic style is reflected on the upper structure by the use of a steep roof and pinnacles on the corners.  This ornate upper structure is best seen from the upper stories of the East wing.


The Foscari Porch, a ceremonial balcony on the second story, projects from the tower on the side facing into the main courtyard.


The side of the tower facing the East wing is designed as a triumphal arch known as the Arco Foscari.





Period of Construction

Antonio Rizzo designed and began the courtyard of the Doge's Palace around 1484, when the East wing was begun.  Construction following his design continued for another half century after his 1498 flight from the region after being accused of fraud and embezzlement.


Istrian Stone

The arcading of the courtyard, like the arcading of the outer facings, is covered with Istrian stone.  The courtyard facing of the East wing is particularly grand because an ornately carved sheathing of this stone also covers the third and fourth stories.


Composite of Old and New Styles

The courtyard's vaulting combines Gothic forms such as pointed arches on the piano nobile and polygonal supports on the ground story with a covering of Classical ornament.  The orders were applied to the second-story supports and classical motifs were carved in relief on the third and fourth stories.



The courtyard's irregular shape reflects the palace's location next to the Cathedral, whose cross-shape form defined the palace's boundaries at the northwest corner.


The Scala dei Giganti divides the court into a huge main court and a small auxiliary one.


The small court's name, the "Cortile dei Senatori," reflects its use as a gathering place for Senators.  Its proximity to the stairs made it a convenient place to watch ceremonies conducted on the staircase balcony.


Scala dei Giganti (Staircase of the Giants)

A few years after the completion of the Foscari Arch in the 1470s, Rizzo designed and began the construction of the Scala dei Giganti, a large exterior staircase that stands on the east side of the courtyard.


The new staircase was aligned with the corridor from the Porta della Carta, which leads into the courtyard through the Foscari Arch.


The name "Scala dei Gigante," meaning "Staircase of the Giants," refers to the two colossal statues made in the sixteenth century by the sculptor and architect Jacopo Sansovino. They represent the mythological gods Mars, the god of War, and Neptune, the ruler of the Sea.  Together, they symbolize Venice's dominance on land and sea.


Large Landing and Triumphal Arch

A large landing at the top of the stairs was used for ceremonies.


The arcading of the gallery behind the balcony at the top of the staircase is treated as a three-part triumphal arch.  Its arches are round in the classical manner, which distinguishes them from the pointed arches used for the rest of the courtyard gallery.


Richly carved ornamentation on the spandrels and faces of the three arches further distinguishes them from the arcading of the gallery.






The building of the East wing was precipitated by a fire in 1483 that destroyed the buildings occupying this area, which were part of the old Ziani palace.


Antonio Rizzo began the East wing at the same time he began the courtyard.  After his departure in 1498, Pietro Lombardo became the chief architect.  The design of this wing, both the east and west façades, has also been attributed to the architect Mauro Codussi.


Canal Façade

The East wing's outward-facing façade lies along a small canal called the Rio di Palazzo.


This façade, which is entirely different from those of the Molo and Piazzetta wings, exemplifies the early Venetian-Renaissance style.


The incorporation of facet-cut rusticated stone on the base was probably influenced by this feature on mainland palaces like the Palazzo dei Diamante in Ferrara.


The bridge connecting the palace to the prison on the other side of the canal was added in the seventeenth century.


Doge's Apartments

The Doge's apartments occupied the area of the third story of the east wing to the north of the Scala d'Oro, the "Golden Staircase."


The plan of the Doge's apartments was like that of many traditional Venetian domestic palaces in having a long hall that runs through much of its length.


The Doge's private quarters were on the side overlooking the canal, and the reception areas were on the side overlooking the courtyard.


Scala d'Oro

The Scala d'Oro, meaning Golden Staircase, led up to the Doge's suite.  It was designed by Jacopo Sansovino in the new grand manner of wider, more ornate staircases.


South End of Third Story

Legal departments and halls of justice occupied the area of the third story to the south of the Scala d'Oro.  Access was gained through a different staircase, the Scala dei Censori, which was located at the southern (waterfront) end of the East wing.


Fourth Story

The Senate and Collegio occupied the part of the fourth story of the East wing that was located above the Doge's apartments.


The rest of the story was occupied by the Council of Ten.










Italian Medieval Architecture 12 of 15




SW Corner of the Doge's Palace, Venice



Courtyard of Doge's Palace