The Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s

We woke early and decided to try the hotel breakfast because it smelled fantastic as we came downstairs. Sadly it didn’t live up to its smell, it wasn’t bad but I’d recommend picking up a coffee and a pastry from one of the many little stands you’ll find on every corner instead. The reason for our early rising was that today we wanted to see St. Mark’s Basilica and The Doge’s Palace and if you want to do that you have to get there early. The que for the Basilica was already stretching down the side of the Palace and around the waterfront but luckily it moved quickly and we were in pretty soon.

The Basilica is unusual for Western European church architecture in that it has a heavy Byzantine influence, with some of the mosaics even having been produced by a workshop that had left for Venice from Constantinople working in their natal style. This is because Venice was the last Byzantine territory in the West and, even after she became independent, retained close trading, and socio-cultural ties with the Empire for many years before the dramatic souring of their relationship. It follows a traditional basilica floor plan but has a great number of domes of different sizes, each one depicting a different saint or religious scene, and is dimly lit with only small clerestory windows instead of the more familiar stained glass. One of the remarkable things about the Basilica is the level of detail, even the inner walls of the window arches are each painted with a unique and intricate design.

Before heading into the Doge’s Palace we decided to break for coffee in Florian’s. St. Mark’s Square is full of very famous and expensive café’s where famous creative types liked to work when they were in Venice, and Florian’s is the most famous and most expensive, beloved by Lord Byron during his time there. Outside they have a chamber group playing music for the patrons so we sat there and ordered an iced coffee each. This turned out to actually mean coffee ice cream and I can say without a doubt that it was the best coffee ice cream I’ve ever had. Florian’s was a lovely experience and I recommend it.

The Doge’s Palace was the seat of Ducal power in Venice prior to Napoleon’s conquest. The position was an elected one and, by the end, largely symbolic, involving a marriage between the Doge on behalf of Venice with the sea. Along with the Doge, who had very little contact with the outside world once he was elected, his eleven closest friends would live here in the palace with him (the museum didn’t say if their wives and families also lived there but as many Venetian noble families only allowed one marriage per generation as a way to avoid dividing their wealth its possible that only unmarried friends were chosen). The exterior of the building itself is deceptively simple, being largely red brick over a level of white marble columns, and three sides of the inner courtyard match.

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The final side however looks like this

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The interior is a similar combination of plain elegant lines and elaborate detail:

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which you get to by passing under this archway with Hercules and Atlas on the pillars on either side of the door

 

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The pictures end here for a bit because they don’t allow cameras inside the palace but it only becomes more elaborate with painted and gilded ceilings, intricate wall paper and carved wooden paneling as well as, of course, a sizeable art collection including works by Tintoretto. Much of the political and legal life of the city was also centred here, including the housing of the Books of Gold and Silver which were established to prevent social mobility in Venetian society. The Book of Gold listed the Venetian nobles and all marriage and births among them were required to be entered into it. If your name was not in the book then you could neither hold office nor marry someone who was entered in it. This allowed the noble families of Venice to consolidate power between them and prevent the external influences always brought by political marriage with outsiders. The Book of Silver was for middle class Venetians, recording citizens from families of “good repute” and provided a distraction to those who would otherwise be angry at being cut off from Gold status by providing them one that, while not as high as they would like, still granted them superiority over those not included.

As well as being the seat of civil government and foreign relations the criminal courts were also housed in the palace and a tunnel leads straight from them to famous Bridge of Sighs, connecting, perhaps unwisely, the palace to the prison. It may not have been as unwise as it sounds however, as supposedly the only escape in the prisons history was Cassanova and he was more interested than leading than going back into the palace and committing political assassinations. There’s also a museum attached to the palace which has a fascinating weapons collections and reproductions of the bronze horses Napoleon stole from St. Mark’s after defeating Venice (the origonal horses are currently housed in the Louvre and were seen by the newlyweds on their way through Paris).

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