Doge’s Palace

The morning of my booked Doge’s palace secret itineraries tour was thick with fog. The fog turned Venice into a ghost town, made the buildings appear like mirages, and muffled the sounds, except the lonely-sounding mating call of the fog horn from the open sea beyond. You couldn’t see from one end to the other on St Mark’s Square and the top of the tower was shrouded in mist.

it was the perfect time to spend the better part of the day in the Doge’s Palace. The palace as it stands today dates to the 14th and 15th centuries and was built both to house the Doge’s apartments and the offices for  political institutions and later administrative offices. The secret itineraries tour cost 20 euro which also gave access to the palace afterwards. Or, you could get a combo ticket to the palace and other museums in the square for the same amount of money, but no secret tour. I knew i would want to spend most of my time outside, exploring the city, rather than in museums, so secret itineraries it was.

The prisons in the cellar. Dank and cold.

The tour was a fascinating glimpse in to the history of the building and Venice herself. We started our tour in the prisons in the ground floor and then walked narrow steps all to the top, all in what used to be the medieval guard tower. A building within a building, connected to the rest through only a few points. This was where the city’s administrators worked, where prisoners were convicted and served their sentences.

There were more prisons just below the roof, in the Piombi, which were meant for political prisoners of the Council of Ten, the body established to investigate espionage. The best known of these was Casanova who served 15 months of his five year sentence for espionage before his escape in 1755. He was the only man known to have escaped from these prisons.

Our excellent guide told the story. As a man of rank, Casanova was allowed to exercise on the roof and he found a block of stone and a metal spike there on one of his strolls. He hid them and used the stone to file the spike into a sharp point. He used this spine to dig through the wooden floor of his first cell, but fortunately he was discovered before he broke through. I say fortunately, since he would have come through a gorgeously illustrated ceiling of the Inquisitor’s chamber, right over the heads of the people who sentenced him to the cells in the first place. Hardly ideal as an escape route!

Casanova was then transferred to another prison, also with wooden floors, walls and ceilings and he managed to smuggle the spike there as well. He also convinced the guard who discovered his earlier escape hole to keep it silent, else it would have gone bad for the guard under whose nose Casanova dug his first tunnel. Casanova then managed to communicate with another prisoner nearby (the cells didn’t connect but they used books with coded messages) and convinced this priest to dig a hole through his ceiling, then to Casanova’s cell and up to the very rooftop.

One of the cells in the Piombi

Together, they made their way to the main stairway, the Golden one, and waited to be let out of the palace by the guards opening it up in the morning. They had cunningly worn their good clothes, so were assumed to have been locked up by accident. The balls on that man!

We saw both the cells Casanova stayed at, the staircase he used to escape to the public areas below and the rooftop under the wooden beams they used in their escape. We also saw the bare offices the chancellors, notaries, magistrates and inquisitors used in their daily work. The pomp, gold leaf and frescoes were for the public spaces, but the civil servants toiled in wood panelled rooms with just a table, chair and perhaps a cupboard. The Torture Chamber was just a wood panelled room with prisoners’ cells lining the walls, with a platform and rope hanging over it. As torture goes, the rope torture wasn’t the worst but the room still gave me the chills.

When we finished our tour and exited into the public chambers (not available to tourists), we saw that the door we came through was disguised as a large cabinet on the other side. Very clever. Later, when we exited the secret tour into the main palace areas, the door opening to the top of the golden staircase beyond these rooms was a simple wooden door that our guide locked securely behind us.

Corridors to and the view from the Bridge of Sighs

To make sure I didn’t miss out on anything, I then walked down the Golden stairs back to the courtyards and toured all the ground level spaces. On the ground floor you can only access ground floor spaces, many with an exhibition of the original column heads lining the palace on all sides of the inner courtyard. The only access point to the upper stories is  the Golden stair, so I returned there to begin my tour of the state rooms.

No words or photos does the palace justice. Imagine the Sistine chapel, but with room after room after room of gorgeous ceiling frescoes, oil paintings and gold leaf. Simply stunning. We saw armouries, more prison cells, and of course the Bridge of Sighs, through which you cross the narrow canal and to the new prison building that was built in 1614 when the space available within the Doge’s Palace was deemed insufficient. 

It took me about five hours in all for the palace, a little over an hour for the secret tour, and four hours to walk through and photograph every inch of the palace. I took about 700 photos in all. I dare you to manage with fewer. You find more of  my photos on Flickr.



The Palace on Wikipedia

Official website

Casanova’s escape on wikipedia

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