The Doge's Palace, which overlooks the Piazzetta of St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco), is one of the top attractions in Venice. Also called the Palazzo Ducale, the Doge's Palace was the seat of power for the Venetian Republic – La Serenissima - for centuries.
The Doge's Palace was the residence of the Doge (the ruler of Venice) and also housed the political bodies of the state, including the Great Council (Maggior Consiglio) and the Council of Ten. Within the lavish complex, there were law courts, administrative offices, courtyards, grand stairways, and ballrooms, as well as prisons on the ground floor. Additional prison cells were located across the canal in the Prigioni Nuove (New Prisons), were built in the late 16th century, and connected to the palace via the Bridge of Sighs.
You can see the Bridge of Sighs, torture chamber, and other sites not open to visitors on the Doge's Palace Secret Itineraries Tour.
Historical records note that the first Ducal Palace in Venice was built around the end of the 10th century, but much of this Byzantine part of the palace was a victim of subsequent reconstruction efforts. The construction of the most recognizable part of the palace, the Gothic-style south façade facing the water, was begun in 1340 in order to hold the meeting chamber for the Great Council.
There were numerous expansions of the Doge's Palace throughout subsequent centuries, including after 1574 and 1577, when fires ravaged parts of the building. Great Venetian architects, such as Filippo Calendario and Antonio Rizzo, as well as the masters of Venetian painting – Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese – contributed to the elaborate interior design.
Venice's most important secular building, the Doge's Palace was the home and headquarters of the Venetian Republic for approximately 700 years until 1797 when the city fell to Napoleon. It has been a public museum since 1923.