The Doge’s Palace is a place of almost unbearable grandeur. It’s not just where the Doge (a non-hereditary, very carefully elected* ruler) hung his amusingly unique sort-of-like-a-flaccid-Phrygian-cap hat, but is also a functional government complex, where high courts sat and Councils of Forty, Ten, Greatness etc met. The members of these courts and councils were all scions of staggeringly wealthy merchant families, who were denied many other forms of showing off (to forestall dangerous bling arms races, Venice’s oligarchs collectively kept a tight lid on most public displays of wealth – it’s why gondolas are glossy black, and why there are essentially no public statues before 1797, when the Republic fell.)** So the Palace and its decoration represented not only the political institutions of the Republic (of which they were quite justifiably proud, maintaining something like a millennium of stability at the centre of a multi-continent hurricane of money and invasions) but also, personally, the best opportunity for most of the richest people in southern Europe to show that they were men of wealth and taste.
Thus, its staircases feel like ascending into a heaven made of gold-leafed stucco, and the rooms they lead to range from exquisitely realised high-relief classical pantheons to acres of Old Masters plastered across every flat surface. The finest painters and sculptors of Europe were brought here to decorate the walls and ceilings with various Doges and allegorical figures doing thematically appropriate things: trashing Turks, dispensing justice, chilling with saints, accepting the benedictions of classical figures. The largest walls are reserved for apocalyptic naval battles or twenty-five-metre-wide murals of God and all His angels, the ceilings covered in yet more magnificent paintings separated by rivers of gold leaf. The effect is overwhelming. The flat roofs seem oddly boring until you realise how much harder they were to build than vaulted cathedral ceilings; similarly, the building’s flat square facade, pre-modernism, would be obvious to everyone as incredibly accomplished as well as space-efficient. Oddly, the armoury is the one part not filled with bling; the weapons there that aren’t trophies of war are mostly functional, serious things for the palace guard, swords and crossbows and what may be an original Puckle gun. The Bridge of Sighs takes you from palace to prison, a glum, intimidating place of graffitied stone and very well made interlocking iron bars.*** Back in the palace, one room contained an absolutely marvellous temporary exhibition of Indian jewellery. Jade thumb rings and tulwar hilts shimmered with rubies and emeralds under two-storey paintings of the Battle of Lepanto.
Most clock faces show twelve hours, and trust the time-checker to work out from context whether it is midday or midnight. Several around Venice, apparently not trusting their audience, have twenty-four, either numbered I-XXIV or with two I-XII sequences continuing from each other. One clock inside the Doge’s palace, however, only shows six hours. Along the walls of the first floor loggia, specially carved lion-faced postboxes swallow anonymous denunciations; in the courtyard below them is a statue of the unloved St Theodore, who was the patron saint of Venice until the city, wishing to distance itself from Byzantium, stole the bones of St Mark from Alexandria and took him as their patron. Poor displaced Theodore appears here and there but is easily mistaken for the more popular Saint George (they share the “stabbing a dragon” gimmick), and everywhere in the city the symbol of St Mark, a winged lion, holds its book open with expressions ranging from “READ THIS, SINNER” to “hurr hurr funny book”. Here and there you can find plaques thanking the British “Venice in Peril” fund for stopping some part or other of the city from falling into the waves.
St Mark’s Square was full of predatory seagulls, making close passes overhead; I shouted a warning to Fran, but she misheard it as being about pedestals, and ten seconds later her panini was inside a mob of opportunistic birds; this is the second time this has happened this year. We had reserved a timeslot for St Mark’s Basilica, which given the huge queues turned out to be a brilliant idea; waiting for that slot, we took a lift up the Campanile for views of the city’s sunlit roofs. Down in the canals below, gondoliers offered parties of pensioners and Chinese tourists a production-line trip (€80 for an hour, probably quite a bit more for the optional extra musicians.)
Here’s a video I took of one of the best ones.
The basilica itself is a different style of magnificent. Its lower levels are a gorgeous selection of patterned marbles in white, green, grey and purple; the serious decoration, the stucco and mosaics, only starts a couple of metres up. Inside, it feels more Orthodox than Catholic, with gilt mosaics and long-faced saints smeared across the inside of a clutch of great domes. It feels larger inside than out, and it’s a strikingly patched-together, almost ramshackle place – the ragged, uneven floors, the repairs and compromises made to the architecture over a thousand years, the plaintive cries of “no photo!” from staff ignored by tourists and tour guides alike, the little extra barriers inside trying to charge you a few euros more to go up on the balcony or look at Those Famous Horses**** and the general gloomy lack of light all give the place an ancient, entropy-laden, wonderfully Byzantine atmosphere.
We strolled down the wide, stall-strewn waterfront, where little pumps recirculate water over overpriced chunks of coconut and crowds of tourists go to and from the day ferries, to the Arsenal, the real source of Venice’s power. The naval museum (its doors flanked by the immense anchors of the Austro-Hungarian dreadnoughts Tegetthoff and Viribus Unitus) was closed, but in the Arsenal sheds to the north they keep an amazing collection of boats: gilt barges, tiny fishing skiffs, a large WW2 torpedo boat and a complete boiler and engine assembly from a huge yacht. The ticket to the Doge’s Palace also gave access to the museums ringing St Mark’s; it said “museums” as if they were plural, but all seem to be part of the same complex, a multi-level sprawl whose contents ambled amiably from leathery old globes and classical statuary to bits of Napoleonic and Habsburg swag; among one suite of grander rooms, a great deal of noise is made about “Sissi” as if anyone this century should know or care who she was.***** Most entertaining of all were the uniquely Venetian things, like a complete set of every coin ever minted in the Republic, a pair of flood shoes somewhere between platforms and ship rudders, and a model depicting an apparent traditional Venetian pastime: making a human pyramid on top of two barges.
*An amusing exception being the statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, a mercenary general who left an enormous endowment to Venice on condition that a statue be erected to him in St Mark’s Square. The Venetian government thought about it very hard and said they’d take the money, but the statue would go up opposite the school of St Mark, a vastly less grand location.
** I quote: “New regulations for the elections of the doge introduced in 1268 remained in force until the end of the republic in 1797. Their object was to minimize as far as possible the influence of individual great families, and this was effected by a complex electoral machinery. Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine and the nine elected forty-five. Then the forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who actually elected the doge. None could be elected but by at least twenty-five votes out of forty-one, nine votes out of eleven or twelve, or seven votes out of nine electors.”
*** Looking out on the shimmering green waters, imagining that this is the last time you ever will, you can see how the bridge got its name. Although it’s not clear if that’s actually true or just a very old urban legend.
**** The four horses on the balcony of St Mark’s are replicas anyway. The originals: are shrouded in myth, may have been from Rome, were definitely in Constantinople for centuries, were nicked by the Venetians when Crusaders sacked the city in 1204, were nicked again in 1797 by Napoleon but returned to Venice after Waterloo, and now hide indoors from air pollution. Their story is fantastic but the horses themselves are quite boring, and the reverence and significance which these obviously incomplete parts of a looted chariot statue were and are given is an essay in itself about Europe’s relationship with the classical world. Though to be fair they’re also covered in gold and quite shiny.
***** “Sissi”- Elisabeth of Bavaria – was the wife of Franz Josef I, who through his immense longevity and witlessness presided over the destruction of the otherwise extraordinarily long-lived and resilient Habsburg empire. Sissi herself was a vain, pointless, miserable consort known only for being pretty and dying violently. She is still, bizarrely, the object of intense devotion both here and in Vienna. Anyone who, like me, is wondering when the Diana meme will finally die will find it distressing that Sissi’s cult appears to be going strong after 120 years.