The centre of power for 700 years, the Doge's Palace overlooks Piazza San Marco and is one of Venice's top attractions — for good reason. The Palazzo Ducalo (as it is called in Italian) was first built in the 10th century, a prime example of Venetian Gothic architecture. The palace has changed a lot in the intervening years, with each doge (or duke) adding more elaborate Italian Renaissance designs and artwork.
The Doge's Palace is huge. On your own you're likely to get palace fatigue. We recommend a better alternative — book a guided tour and see through an expert's eyes the secrets of Doge's Palace, as well as the darker side of the city's former rulers. Our top pick, the secret tour, takes you to the palace's magnificent public rooms, but also includes rare access to the Piombi attic prison.
This guided tour begins at Piazza San Marco, just a short stroll from the Doge's Palace. Explore the ornate public rooms, of course, but then visit the darker, secret chambers where "justice was served". In this double-duty activity you see Tintoretto's frescos, and also get a rare glimpse into Piombi, the attic prison where Venetian's upper-class prisoners were held.
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"Piombi" means "lead" and refers to the lead-covered roof above the attic, which, in the winter, was freezing cold, but in the summer was a conduit for heat from the sun, making the living conditions less than ideal.
By the 16th century, the attic prison cells were replaced by the New Prisons, although the name is deceptive. On your tour you also see how the New Prisons are connected to Palace by the Bridge of Sighs — Ponte dei Sospiri. This small group tour is limited to 25 people. Best part — walking right past the long line with your guide. Tour is available April to October.
Great behind-the-scenes tour. Guide was great and brought the past to life. Small group made it easy to hear everything and ask questions. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking for something more than just a tour of the palace"
– 5-Star Review
We like this longer activity (about 3½ hours) that takes you through so many of the fascinating aspects of Venice. You see the City of Islands from the land and then from the water on this clever combination tour.
Meet your guide at Palazzo Saint Marco and head directly to the Doge's Palace where you see all the good stuff — the private apartments, the prisons, the Giant's Staircase. Then cross the Bridge of Sighs that connects the palace to the prisons.
After getting out of prison, breathe some fresh air on a walking tour of the hidden gems between St. Mark's and the Rialto Bridge. Your itinerary includes La Fenice theatre, the Bovolo spiral staircase of Contarini Palace, and of course the Rialto Bridge itself.
Now it's time to board a gondola for views of Venice from the water. Since this tour combines three individual tours it's a better value than booking each tour on its own. Tours run daily.
Our tour guide was amazing, she was born there and speaks fluently Spanish and English. All her comments about the history and the building details were amazing. The complete tour — Doge's Palace, the walking tour, and the gondola ride — was incredible!! I highly recommended."
– 5-Star Review
The Doge's Palace isn't so much about prisons, intrigue, or torture. It's about politics. Think of it as the White House of the Venetian Republic — which called itself La Serenissima, The Most Serene Republic — primarily focused on keeping order and justice for the Silk Road trade.
The doge was elected by the people and held office for a lifetime. The average age of a doge was over 60, so he wouldn't hold the position for too long. The doge worked with the Great Council — Maggior Consiglio — and the Council of Ten to ensure that power wasn't centralized.
Look for the mail slots in the shape of imposing masks outside of the Doge's Palace, Per Denontie Secrete-For Secret Denunciations. If you were suspicious of your neighbour, you could place their name on a slip of paper and drop into the lion's mouth anonymously. Death sentences were without appeal, and proceedings were held in certain secret passages.
The public rooms of the palace are grand, but go beyond the secret door (yes, there is one) and you will find yourself in a barren room with wood floors, low ceilings, and few windows. This is where the business of the Venice Empire took place. The only way to access the secret rooms today is on a guided tour.
The Grand Chancellor of Venice ruled the secret rooms of the Palace. He handed out sentences and ordered torture to the accused.
Upon sentencing the condemned would be sent to a prison. The prisoner would walk over the bridge that connects the palace with the prison. Legend has it that you could hear their sighs on their last freedom walk — hence the name Bridge of Sighs.
A famous escapee from the prison was the fun-loving Casanova (1725 – 1798). You might think adultery was his crime, but it was his practice of witchcraft that landed him in prison. He somehow managed to escape from the fortress and fled by gondola to exile in Paris. There is a funny twist to the story — Casanova eventually returned to Venice and acted as a spy for the Venetian Inquisitors.
The Doge's Palace was the headquarters of the Venetian Republic for 700 years and the seat of power until Napoleon captured the city in 1797.
The palace is packed with some of the greatest art in Venice, including Tintoretto's masterpiece, Paradise. Measuring 74 x 30 feet (22 x 9 meters), Tintoretto's oil painting is the largest in the world and fills an entire wall behind the doge's throne.
Basilica San Marco was once the Doge's private chapel and personal sanctuary. Nicknamed Chiesa d'Oro, or church of gold, the Byzantine-style basilica is decorated in glass mosaics from Murano and the floor's marble geometric pattern are inspired from Islamic mosques.
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