The Doge's Palace Secret Itineraries tour, Venice, Italy - visitor information
The regular tour of the Doge’s Palace (the Palazzo Ducale) in Venice is extraordinary enough. The building is a quite remarkable example of Gothic civic architecture. Every stone, passageway and artwork evokes the power that the Serene Republic wielded over a millennium of unparalleled imperial power. But real aficionados will want to dig even deeper – to explore the hidden corners of the palace on the Itinerari Segreti del Palazzo Ducale (the secret tour of the Doge’s Palace).
This follows in the footsteps of the most important (or infamous) leaders of Venice. On their trips through the palace, these men wouldn’t use the public doors and stairways, they would slip through hidden passageways and concealed doors: somehow appropriate in this smoke-and-mirrors city where mask and illusion are so popular and where subterfuge was always an essential element of the politics.
Take the Itinerari Segreti and you discover these hidden passages, also the administrative offices of the men who ran the Venice of medieval and Renaissance times. You’ll even visit the city gaol, and the very cell from which notorious lover Giacomo Casanova made his escape in 1775.
From July 2013 the tour starts directly from the courtyard of the Palace, via a tight entranceway leading to the 'Pozzi', the tiny and inhospitable cells that housed prisoners - in truly degrading conditions - during the height of La Serenissima's powers.
The tour then moves on, via a tight and steep stairway, to the offices of the Notaio Ducale (Doge’s
secretary), the assistant to many of Venice’s ministers, and
moves on to the rooms of the Deputato alla Segreta del Consiglio
dei Diceci (literally ‘the Deputy of the secret works of the
Council of Ten’) the keeper of the secret archives. The Council
of Ten was the revolving council that ruled Venice. Now we move on
to the office of the Grand Chancellor, the only official of Venice
directly elected by the Grand Council. He was in charge of the main
From here, we take the stairs to the room of the Cancelleria Segreta (Secret Chancellery). This is a superb room. Its walls were once covered with cupboards, stuffed with documents charting the public acts (and secret deals) made by the magistrates of the Republic. The upper doors are clad with mirrors, and bear the names and the coats of arms of the chancellors of the city from 1268 onward.
We move through the salon of the Reggente alla Cancelleria (Regent to the Chancellery) and to some of Venice’s darker secrets. Here we find the Torture Room, which joins directly to the gaol. On from here and we are in the Piombi (literally ‘the leads’). This area gets its name as it is sited under the lead roof of the palace. This was the original prison (before the new prison across the Bridge of Sighs) and continued to be used for certain offenders, typically political prisoners, those awaiting trial, or those on short sentences for lesser crimes. There were half a dozen cells here (stalls really) separated by wood partitions: it doesn’t sound too luxurious, but Casanova for one attested that the Piombi were far preferable to the Pozzi (‘the wells’): the dreaded cells in the basement of the Palazzo Ducale.
We head on to the Sottotetto (attic) at Ponte della Paglia. These occupy a corner site between the Rio di Palazzo and the Bacino di San Marco. This was once the location of a tower occupied by the Doge of the day. The walls bear coats of arms, mainly from the 1300s. We then descend the stairs from the Sottotetto to the Sala degli Inquisitori (the ‘Inquisitors’ Room’). The beautiful ceiling of the room, decorated by painter Tintoretto during 1566-67, belied its terrible function. The Sala housed the Inquisitori alla Propagazione dei Segreti dello Stato, a shadowy body of three men, founded in 1539, to protect state secrets … and to winkle out any transgressors. These ‘inquisitors for the maintenance of state secrets’ (secret policemen in fact) took ‘objectiveness, competence and efficiency’ as their watchwords. But their activities and their findings (uncovered by any means, including torture) remained hidden from the Venetian public.
And so we move to the Sala dei Tre Capi (literally the ‘room
of the three heads’), a trio of magistrates chosen each month
from the 10 men on the Consiglio dei Dieci. This is a further example
of the periodic revolving of power within the Republic as a guard
against any one man assuming too much sway. The superb ceiling was
painted in 1553 and 1554 by Giambattista Zelotti, with the ante-rooms
by Veronese and Giambattista Ponchino.
You are then free to explore the remainder of the palace. Your tour is likely to end at the Ponte dei Sospiri or Bridge of Sighs … the final walk of prisoners across the water to the ‘new prison’.
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