Doge's Palace in Venice: The Complete Guide

Facade of the Doge's Palace with crowds milling out front

 Philippe Giraud / Getty Images

The Doge's Palace, the historic seat of power for the Venetian Republic for more than 700 years, is a stop on most travelers' itineraries in Venice. One facade of the palace overlooks the Piazzetta of St. Mark's Square (Piazza San Marco) and another the Grand Canal, making it one of the most majestically situated monuments in Europe. A third facade looms over the narrow Rio del Palazzo canal, while the back of the building abuts the Basilica di San Marco complex.

Now one of the top attractions in Venice, the Doge's Palace, also called the Palazzo Ducale, has a long and colorful history that is inextricably linked to the rise of Venice and its dominance of large swaths of southern and central Europe over the centuries.

History of the Doge's Palace

The Doge's Palace was the residence of the Doge (the elected or appointed ruler of Venice) and also housed the political bodies of the state, including the Great Council (Maggior Consiglio) and the Council of Ten. The present building dates to the 1300s, though the role of the Doge can be traced to the 8th century, when Venice was part of the Byzantine Empire. By the High Middle Ages (1000-1300), the Republic of Venice ruled the eastern Mediterranean, including the entire Adriatic Coastline of what is now Croatia and Bosnia. In the 1400-1500s, it dominated the seas surrounding what are now Greece and Turkey, and had control over Cyprus, Crete and the entire Greek archipelago. On the Italian peninsula, the cities of Vincenza, Treviso, Padua, Verona, Brescia, and Bergamo were all held by Venice.

A Republic this mighty merited a palatial seat of government. When previous iterations of the Palazzo Ducale, or Doge's Palace, were set at other locations in Venice and subsequently burned to the ground, a new site was chosen in the 1100s. While little to nothing remains of this early building, the 14th-century building that forms the foundation of the present-day palace grew up in its place. 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, the nearly 500-member governing body who served as a set of checks and balances for the Doge.

The palace that rose adjacent to the Basilica San Marco would become one of the most lavish municipal and residential complexes in Europe. In addition to the private apartment of the Doge, the palace held, law courts, administrative offices, courtyards, grand stairways, and ballrooms, as well as prisons on the ground floor. A new wing facing the Piazzetta San Marco was started in the 1420s. Its design mimicked that of the canal-facing wing—an arcaded ground floor level topped by a first floor with decorative arched balconies. This wing wrapped around an interior courtyard, which then and now is the focal point of the palace.

A fire in 1483 did extensive damage to the palace and resulted in an ambitious plan of expansion and reconstruction. Subsequent fires in 1574 and 1577 destroyed large portions of the palace and priceless artworks and furnishings within. A rapid renovation followed and restored the Gothic-style palace to its pre-fire condition, which is largely what we see today. Great Venetian architects, such as Filippo Calendario and Antonio Rizzo, as well as the masters of Venetian painting, such as Tintoretto, Titian, and Veronese, contributed to the elaborate interior design.

A Prison in a Palace

The Doge's Palace is known for its grand interiors, but it has another claim to fame—or rather infamy. Throughout the history of the Republic of Venice, the prisons on the ground floor of the palace contained tiny, dark, and dreadful cells that were constantly damp and disease-ridden, and frigidly cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer. A late 1500s effort to expand the prison and ostensibly improve living conditions for the imprisoned resulted in the Prigioni Nuove (New Prisons), which were located on the other side of the Rio del Palazzo and connected to the palace via the Bridge of Sighs. The stone bridge allegedly earned its romantic name for the sighs that condemned prisoners emitted when they saw their last glimpse of Venice through the stone grills on the windows. Giacomo Casanova, the notorious Italian writer and raconteur, famously escaped from the Old Prison—nicknamed the Piombi—by allegedly climbing into the roof rafters, ascending the stairs, and walking out the front door.

Decline of Venice and the Doge's Palace

By the turn of the 17th century and around the time of the completion of the palace, Venice's fortunes began to decline. A prolonged conflict with the Papacy in Rome, a long-standing war with the Ottoman Empire and a loss of several key territories left the Republic weakened. By the end of the 1700s, Venice was no longer a seafaring empire, though it did control all of the Po Valley of the Italian peninsula. In 1796, Napoleon Bonaparte controlled the city and in 1797, Ludovico Manin, the last Doge of Venice, abdicated his position—the 700-year-old Republic of Venice ceased to exist.

In 1866, Venice became part of the united Kingdom of Italy and the Doge's Palace became the property of the newly formed Italian state. A late 19th-century renovation restored the badly deteriorated palace and in 1923, it opened as a museum.

Visiting the Doge's Palace

One of the top sights to visit in Venice, the Doge's Palace is open for tours every day of the year. The basic tour is a self-guided look at a handful of the most important rooms in the palace, but excludes several key areas. To see the old and new prisons, including Casanova's cell, the Bridge of Sighs, and several other exquisitely preserved rooms, you need to book the highly recommended Doge's Palace Secret Itineraries Tour. Tours in English sell out months in advance, so be sure to book early.

For more tips on how to see the best of Venice and get the most from your stay there, see our guide: Visiting Venice: Italy's Most Romantic City