This grand Gothic palace was the Doge's official residence from the 9th century, and seat of the Venetian Republic's government (and prisons) for nearly seven centuries. The Doge's Apartments are on the 1st floor, but it's the lavishly decorated 2nd-floor chambers that are the real highlight. These culminate in the echoing Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Grand Council Hall), home to the Doge’s throne and a 22m-by-7m Paradise painting by Tintoretto’s son Domenico.
After fire gutted the original palace in 1577, Venice considered Palladio’s offer to build one of his signature neoclassical temples in its place. Instead, Antonio da Ponte won the commission to restore the palace's Gothic facade with white Istrian stone and Veronese pink marble. Da Ponte's Palazzo effortlessly mixes past with present and business with pleasure, capping a graceful colonnade with medieval capitals depicting key Venetian guilds. The loggia along the piazzetta (little square) may seem like a fanciful flourish, but it served a solemn purpose: death sentences were read between the ninth and 10th columns from the left. Facing the piazza, Zane and Bartolomeo Bon’s 1443 Porta della Carta (Paper Door) was an elegant point of entry for dignitaries, and served as a public bulletin board for government decrees.
Entering through the colonnaded courtyard you’ll spot Sansovino’s brawny statues of Apollo and Neptune flanking Antonio Rizzo’s Scala dei Giganti (Giants’ Staircase). Restorations have preserved charming cherubim propping up the pillars, though slippery incised-marble steps remain off-limits. On the east side of the courtyard arcade were the dreaded Poggi (Wells), where prisoners shivered below water level – but now a baggage deposit is installed in their place.
Climb the Scala dei Censori (Stairs of the Censors) to the Doge’s Apartments, where the doge lived under 24-hour guard with a short commute to work up a secret staircase. Walk up a couple of steps and turn around to spot Titian’s painting of St Christopher wading across troubled lagoon waters over the archway. The 18 roaring lions decorating the doge's Sala degli Stucci are reminders that Venice's most powerful figurehead lived like a caged lion in his gilded suite, which he could not leave without permission. Still, consider the real estate: a terrace garden with private entry to the basilica, and a dozen salons with splendidly restored marble fireplaces carved by Tullio and Antonio Lombardo. The Sala del Scudo (Shield Room) is covered with world maps that reveal the extents of Venetian power (and the limits of its cartographers) c 1483 and 1762. The New World map places California near Terra Incognita d'Antropofagi (Unknown Land of the Maneaters), aka Canada, where Cuzco is apparently located.
Head up Sansovino’s 24-carat gilt stuccowork Scala d’Oro (Golden Staircase) and emerge into rooms covered with gorgeous propaganda. In the Palladio-designed Sala delle Quattro Porte (Hall of the Four Doors), ambassadors awaited ducal audiences under a lavish display of Venice's virtues by Giovanni Cambi, whose over-the-top stuccowork earned him the nickname Bombarda. Other convincing shows of Venetian superiority include Titian’s 1576 Doge Antonio Grimani Kneeling Before Faith amid approving cherubs, and Tiepolo’s 1740s Venice Receiving Gifts of the Sea from Neptune, where Venice is a gorgeous blonde casually leaning on a lion.
Delegations waited in the Anticollegio (Council Antechamber), where Tintoretto drew parallels between Roman gods and Venetian government: Mercury and the Three Graces reward Venice’s industriousness with beauty, and Minerva Dismissing Mars is a Venetian triumph of savvy over brute force. The ceiling is Veronese’s 1577 Venice Distributing Honours, while on the walls is a vivid reminder of diplomatic behaviour to avoid: Veronese’s Rape of Europe .
Few were granted an audience in the Palladio-designed Collegio (Council Room), where Veronese’s 1575–78 Virtues of the Republic ceiling shows Venice as a bewitching blonde waving her sceptre like a wand over Justice and Peace. Father-son team Jacopo and Domenico Tintoretto attempt similar flattery, showing Venice keeping company with Apollo, Mars and Mercury in their Triumph of Venice ceiling for the Sala del Senato (Senate Hall), but frolicking lagoon sea-monsters steal the scene.
Government cover-ups were never so appealing as in the Sala Consiglio dei Dieci (Trial Chambers of the Council of Ten), where Venice’s star chamber plotted under Veronese’s Juno Bestowing Her Gifts on Venice, a glowing goddess strewing gold ducats. Over the slot where anonymous treason accusations were slipped in the Sala della Bussola (Compass Room) is his St Mark in Glory ceiling.
The cavernous 1419 Sala del Maggior Consiglio (Grand Council Hall) provides the setting for Domenico Tintoretto's swirling Paradise, a work that’s more politically correct than pretty: heaven is crammed with 500 prominent Venetians, including several Tintoretto patrons. Veronese’s political posturing is more elegant in his oval Apotheosis of Venice ceiling, where gods marvel at Venice’s coronation by angels, with foreign dignitaries and Venetian blondes rubbernecking on the balcony below.