Although often translated to English as “Duke,” the person chosen by the nobility of Venice to rule over it was not a duke, but a doge (doxe in Venetian), which came from the Latin dux, or “military leader.” The position was extant for over a millennium (726-1797), and though the Doge was chosen for life, the title was not hereditary. Orso Ipato, the first known Venetian Doge (he was the third, but the identity of the two previous is unknown to us), was chosen against the will of the then-governing Byzantine empire. Though he led a revolt against the empire, its authorities later recognized his position, and his son, Teodato Ipato, was also elected Doge in 742. Constantinople eventually lost control over Italy in 751, when the Lombards executed the last exarch of Ravenna.
The office continued to grow in prestige as Venice itself grew more prosperous and conquered its neighbors, such as parts of Dalmatia in 1000. By 1002, the Holy Roman Emperor had recognized the Doge’s title of “Duke of the Venetians and the Dalmatians.” This recognition was also adopted by the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos in 1082. After the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and the Sacking of Constantinople, the Doge gained the right to call himself “Duke of the Venices, Dalmatia and Croatia, and lord of a fourth part and a half of the whole Empire of Romania,” “Romania” here referring to the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. Constantinople. This part of his title was dropped after 1261, when the Byzantine Empire was reestablished, and only when Venice was speaking to its emperors directly.
While originally the seat of Venetian government had been housed on the island of Malamocco, it was moved to Rialto in the 9th century. That first building was partially destroyed by a fire, and in the 12th century, Doge Sebastiano Ziani decided to undertake a project to completely reconstruct the Piazza San Marco.
The inner courtyard of the Doge’s Palace (as it’s known in English) works as a transition between it and the Basilica di San Marco, which used to be the Doge’s chapel.
In 1485, the Great Council of Venice (the city’s chief political assembly), decided to commission a grand staircase within the courtyard to lead into the building. This is known as the Giants’ Staircase, and is flanked by Jacopo Sansovino’s two statues of Mars and Neptune, representing Venice’s power by land and sea.
Like all old structures, the palazzo has undergone a series of renovations. In the 15th century, a fire destroyed part of the Doge’s Apartments, and its repair work introduced Renaissance elements into the building. More fires took place in the 16th century, and the Bridge of Sighs was added to the building to link it to the New Prison in 1600-1603.
In the late 18th century, when Napoleon took over the city, the building was repurposed so that its new governments (first the French, then the Austrian, and finally unified Italy’s) could make use of its rooms as administrative offices. In the 19th century, after it had gone deeply into decay, the building was vacated and renovated, and then turned into a museum in 1923.
Sala del Senato
Also known as the Sala dei Pregadi, it served as the meeting chamber for the Senate, which was one of the oldest public institutions in Venice. The room is decorated with works by Tintoretto and Palma il Giovane.
A collection begun as early as the 14th century, it holds historically valuable items from several sources. At the time of its origin, it was stocked with weapons that could be used at a moment’s notice by the Palace’s guards, who would be joined by the arsenalotti, those belonging to the workforce from the shipyards of the Arsenale.
It currently contains over 2,000 items, an impressive number considering so much of it was scattered after the fall of the Republic. This includes armor from the 15th and 16th centuries, swords, quivers, crossbows, and halberds. “CX,” standing for Council of Ten (one of the major governing bodies of the Republic), is stamped on the items themselves, as well as on the door jambs of the galleries holding the pieces.
Sala del Maggior Consiglio
The most important artists of the day — Bellini, Titian, and Gentile da Fabriano, to name a few — created works of art to decorate this chamber. It is the largest in the Palazzo Ducale, and also one of the largest rooms in Europe. The Council, which held its meetings in this room, was made up of all the male members of the patrician families of Venice over 25 years old, without regard for their personal status, merits, or wealth, which was considered to be a bastion of republican equality at the time.
It was in this room also that the first stages of the election of a new Doge were carried out. In the 16th century, a fire damaged this chamber extensively, so that new works were created for it by the likes of Veronese, Tintoretto, and Palma il Giovane. The walls are covered with scenes from Venetian history, and its ceiling with images of Virtues and examples of Venetian heroism. The painting at the far wall is Paradiso by Jacopo Tintoretto, and is considered to be one of the largest canvas paintings in the world.
Sala del Scrutinio
Initially (1520), this room was intended to house the precious manuscripts left to the city by Petrarch and Bessarione, and was known as the Library. In 1532 it began to be used as well to count votes and deliberate politics, and this became its primary purpose after the construction of the Biblioteca Marciana across the Piazzeta San Marco. The ceiling was designed by Cristoforo Sorte, a painter-cartographer, depicting episodes of military history and the glory of the Venetians.
Ponte dei Sospiri
Built in 1614 to link the Doge’s Palace to the structure intended to house the New Prisons, it is covered on all sides and cuts across the Rio di Palazzo. It was designed by Antonio Contino, whose uncle, Antonio da Ponte, designed the Ponte di Rialto (I cannot). It is known as the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs as translated by Lord Byron) because it was the last view of Venice that convicts saw before their imprisonment.
Built with the intent to create better conditions for prisoners by including more natural light and flow of air, the structure nevertheless still has cells that are kept far away from windows or which face the inner courtyard.
Fun fact: The first person to successfully steal from the Doge’s Palace was Vincenzo Pipino, who hid inside the cells of the New Prison until the museum had closed and snuck back into the main building. He then stole the Madonna col bambino. The painting was recovered less than a month later.