Doge’s Palace Venice: History and Architecture

Are you interested in the history of the Doge’s Palace in Venice? Do you want to find out about the events that accompanied its evolution (such as the numerous fires and related reconstructions)?

In this article you will find a brief history with the salient events that have affected the building and the detailed one with historical hints related to the architecture that characterizes the various rooms and the events that have taken place from the time of its construction until today.

Are you ready? Let’s get started!

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Doge’s Palace Venice: brief history

The Doge’s Palace in Venice, located in the famous St. Mark’s Square, is a symbol of the power that the Republic of Venice wielded over sea and land.

Ancient seat of government and residence of the doge, the building, despite the unified impression of the fronts, is a composite construction, continuously undergoing transformations that extended from the 9th to the 18th century.

Originating as a Byzantine fortress, it was restored and enlarged by Doge Sebastiano Ziani beginning in 1173.

From the dawn of its construction it was damaged several times by fire, and there were numerous reconstructions starting in 1340, first in Gothic style and later according to the canons of the Renaissance.

In the 18th century, following political upheavals due to the fall of the Venetian Republic, occupied by the French, and then the Austrian invasion, the palace became the seat of administrative offices and the new residence of the Marciana National Library.

After the annexation of Venice to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866, the building underwent substantial restoration and became state property in 1923.

Since 1996 it has been part of the museum network of the Civic Museums of Venice.

The Structure

The palace is famous for being a masterpiece of Venetian Gothic architecture – but there is no shortage of Renaissance, Mannerist, and Baroque additions. At first glance, the building will strike you with its architectural relationships, which appear as if reversed: the portico and loggias with their pierced arches-light and airy-support the massive wall mass of the upper floor.

Before I tell you about the events related to the ducal palace, take a good look at the building; you will notice that it consists of three bodies of buildings that are articulated around a vast courtyard:

  • the wing towards St. Mark’s Basin is the oldest, rebuilt starting in 1340;
  • the wing toward St. Mark’s Square (formerly the Palace of Justice), built starting in 1424;
  • the Renaissance wing on the opposite side, rebuilt between 1483 and 1565, houses the doge’s residence and government offices.

Doge’s Palace Venice: detailed history

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 ”Sometimes, walking in the evening on the Lido, from where one sees the great chain of the Alps crested with silver clouds rising above the front of the Doge’s Palace, I felt filled with the same respect for the mountains and for the palace and thought that God had done great work in creating those mighty spirits who raised those mighty walls and wrote their inflamed legends there […]”

These were the words of John Ruskin referring to what he called ”the Parthenon of Venice,” his Doge’s Palace, whose story began with the birth of the city and remains today the ultimate representation of its power.


As I have said, the birth of the palace is intertwined with that of the city in which it arose, and before telling you about its architectural events I find it useful to give a few nods to the history of the birth of Venice

In 812, with the Peace of Aachen, Constantinople recognized Charlemagne‘s title of Emperor, gaining in return dominion over the lagoon of Venice.

The present doge was deposed, replacing him with the loyalist Duke Agnello Partecipazio, who moved the capital to Rivoalto, the future Venice, and moved the seat of government of the Serenissima to the area of the present palace, close to the lagoon basin of St. Mark’s.

From this time the city moved toward progressive independence, which is placed between the 9th and 11th centuries.

In 820 the successor of Partecipazio, Justinian, had the body of St. Mark transferred from Alexandria to Venice, the new patron saint of the city replacing the Byzantine St. Theodore.

The transfer of civil power and its assumption by the Partecipazio dynasty was accompanied by intense building activity, which continued throughout the 9th century.

The dynasty was closely linked to Constantinople, and Agnello I Partecipazio is recognized by the sources as the builder, on the probable site of a Byzantine fortress placed to control the waters in front, of the ”palatium’‘: the original nucleus of the Doge’s Palace and the only real ”Palace” in Venice, all others taking the name Ca’, i.e., house.

The first core of the palace

Little is known about the form and exact location of the original core under Partecipazio.

Jacopo Sansovino, the greatest architect of the Venetian Republic since 1529, stated that the building stood near the Ponte della Paglia on the Grand Canal, i.e., at the point now occupied by the facade on the sea.

The appearance was that of fortified architecture, with a wall and four corner towers, the remains of which survive today. The building housed public offices, the palace of justice, prisons and dogal apartments, as well as the stables and armories.

We know that the palace already had a certain magnificence, as noted in the account of the Venetian chronicler Sagornino, who wrote about how Emperor Otto the Great carefully contemplated all its beauties.

This was after the building, severely damaged by fire set following a revolt, was repaired and richly embellished by Doge Pietro Orseolo II, probably modeled after Diocletian’s Palace in Split, inspiring the other Byzantine buildings that arose in the city, including the Fondaco dei Turchi.

In 1106 it was again damaged by fire, but was already repaired before 1116.

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The Byzantine Palace erected by Doge Ziani

Between 1173 and the end of the century the Palace was again enlarged and restored by Doge Sebastiano Ziani.

Jacopo Sansovino, in reference to this first major renovation in the Byzantine style, stated that ”he aggrandized it on every side”.

It is to this period that the general reorganization of St. Mark’s Square and the first construction of the Rialto Bridge dates. 

The Byzantine intervention was aimed at giving a seat to the various magistracies of Venice and coincides with the first foundations of government.

The seat of Justice was placed on the side of the palace facing St. Mark’s Square, and the seat of government toward the basin. The work included the building of the wing facing the Rio del Palazzo (the canal now crossed by the Bridge of Sighs) and the enlargement of the marginal areas of the building, which thus became a more open construction toward the city.

Of Ziani’s palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1419, we are left with no concrete recollection other than the remains of a basement in Istrian stone and herringbone terracotta pavements; however, it seems most likely that its appearance was shaped like that of the factories erected in the thirteenth century, with two corner towers, a portico and a loggia.

Of the latter we can state for certain its existence, since documents that have come down record that traitors to the Republic were hanged there.

The Gothic Palace

In the first year of the 14th century the Gothic period of the Doge’s Palace in Venice began, and if the Byzantine palace coincided with the foundations of the Venetian government, the Gothic one coincided with the first establishment of aristocratic government.

 In the year 1297, under Doge Pietro Gardenigo the reform known as the “Serrata del Maggior Consiglio” was passed, by which the office of member of the major council, the highest institution of the Republic responsible for electing the doge, was made hereditary.

The reform precluded the working classes from entering government and also fixed the number of senators at 586 members, later increased to 1212 in 1340.

The alteration in the character of the assembly brought changes in the size and decoration of the hall in which it resided.

In 1301 the construction of the new seat of the Great Council began on the Rio del Palazzo: this was the beginning of the great architectural era of the Gothic period.

The hall, the exact location of which we do not know today, was moved to what was then used for the assembly of the Senate; additional halls were also added, including the chancery and the prison known as the “Torresella”.

It was not thirty years after its construction that the room proved too small, and the senators decided to erect a better one, specially electing two procurators to study its new location.

The works on the great hall, which you can admire today, began in 1340, and was completed in 1365, after some setbacks, first due to a pestilence, and later to the death of the same architect who oversaw the project, Filippo Calendario, who was hanged in 1355 for taking part in a conspiracy, hatched by Doge Marino Faliero. 

When work on the architectural structure was completed, Guariento painted his Paradise on the walls, the monumental balcony overlooking the sea was erected, and the facade on the Piazzetta di San Marco was restored at the behest of Doge Francesco Foscari.

The magnificent building thus completed, the new Council Chamber of which formed the nucleus, was named ”Palazzo Nuovo,” while the Byzantine building was called ”Palazzo Vecchio,” the antiquity of the latter being a poor match for the new construction, so much so that the idea began to arise in the Venetians that it should be torn down in order to prolong on St. Mark’s Square the splendor of the facade on the sea. 

However, these were hard times for the Republic, which, as a result of wars, first sustained against the State of Carrara and later against the Kingdom of Hungary, was in economic difficulties.

To avoid squandering the public treasury, a decree was even promulgated that prevented the construction of the new palace from proceeding, and forbade anyone from even making a proposal, under penalty of a fine of 1,000 ducats.

In 1419 yet another fire damaged part of the palace, and in 1422 the incumbent doge, Tomaso Mocenigo – after bringing with him the thousand ducats penalty – proposed to the senators its reconstruction. 

On April 3, 1423 the Council, chaired by the new doge Francesco Foscari, held its first assembly in the new Hall of the Great Council, while the following year the first blow was given to the demolition of Palazzo Ziani and the facade on the Piazzetta was continued.

Between 1439 and 1443, work was carried out on the construction of the Porta della Carta, the palace’s entrance of honor between its northwest corner and the basilica of St. Mark’s, work of Giovanni and Bartolomeo Bon.

The architectural mass of the structure, once gilded and painted, represents the last masterpiece of Venetian “flowery” Gothic.

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The Renaissance Palace

Beginning in 1450, Doge Francesco Foscari commissioned work on the covered passageway, which is accessed from the Porta della Carta and the arch on its rear front.

The Foscari Arch, a true triumphal arch in Istrian stone and red Verona marble, is the work of the Bon brothers.

The palace did not have time to assume its final layout that in 1479 a new fire necessitated its restoration.

Reconstruction work began with celerity and was entrusted to the best architects of the “Rinascenza”: Antonio Ricci created the Scala dei Giganti (in axis with the Porta della Carta), later replaced by Pietro Lombardo when the former fled, taking a large sum of public money with him.

Unlike the exterior facades of the palace, which present a unified appearance, you will notice that the inner courtyard presents a dissimilarity of styles due to the numerous interventions that took place over the course of no less than four centuries, from the mid-14th century to the beginning of the 17th century.

The elevation on the Senators’ Courtyard was redesigned in full Renaissance style, as you can see by observing the three rows of round arches, the carved panels and bands.

In 1505 the Chiesetta di San Nicolò, by Giorgio Spavento, was built to close the courtyard on the north side.

Finally in 1556, as a continuation of the Scala dei Giganti, the incumbent doge Lorenzo Priuli commissioned Jacopo Sansovino to design a staircase leading to his apartments and institutional rooms, the so-called “Golden Staircase“.

The name is due to the preciousness of the stuccoes covered in gold leaf with fresco panels decorating the vault of the staircase.

Work was completed in the second half of the 16th Century, but the palace did not remain intact for long, reduced to a shell blackened by flames in the devastating fire that destroyed the interior adaptations in 1574, the precious paintings in the major council chamber and those overlooking the sea and the Rio. The coup de grace was delivered by a second fire that broke out in 1577.

The palace was so compromised by it that the debate arose, demolish the palace or restore it?

To resolve the dilemma all the artists of Venice were called upon to express their opinion in writing.

Among the architects called upon to give their opinion was the famous Andrea Palladio, who sided with its demolition and reconstruction from scratch, while opinions in favor of its restoration included that of the man of letters Francesco Sansovino and the architect Giovanni Antonio Rusconi.

It was fortunately decided for its preservation, the only major change being the relocation of the prisons, called “Piombi,” located on the top floor of the palace, which were moved to another building opposite the Rio di Palazzo.

The seventeenth century and the Baroque additions

The new prisons necessitated the construction of the Bridge of Sighs by Antonio Contin, the famous name given to it dates back to the period of Romanticism and alludes to the tormented thoughts that plagued the minds of the condemned men who, once they crossed the bridge, would renounce their freedom.

The relocation of the prisons freed up space on the ground floor of the building and made it possible to begin the renovation of the building’s inner courtyard.

A portico was built in the area of the courthouse in the Renaissance style (similar to the one placed exactly opposite), and a facade with marble arches was erected from 1602 on the north side of the courtyard, surmounted by the tower, the work of Bartolomeo Manopola, built between 1608 and 1615.

The clock on top of it is the work of German watchmaker Johan Slim, who made it in 1614 with a mechanism of weights that ended up in the foundations of the palace, up to the water of an underlying canal that was formerly covered.

The Eighteenth Century

In the 18th century the palace did not undergo any particular transformations: the “Scala dei Giganti” was restored, and five acute windows facing the southern and western side of the courtyard were replaced in 1752.

In these years the palace was often the protagonist of city representations of the new artistic genre of the century, the pictorial current of “Vedutismo”, whose leading Venetian exponents included Antonio Canal known as Canaletto and Francesco Guardi.

The fall of the Republic and the 19th-century restorations

In 1797 the assembly of the Maggior Consiglio met for the last time.

The Republic of Venice falls under the advance of French troops. The following year it would be the turn of the Austrian army, which would occupy the city until 1805, when with the Treaty of Strasbourg the Venetian province returned to the France of Napoleon, who had recently become emperor.

During these years the palace would be used as the administrative headquarters by the new French empire, which from 1811 had the Marciana National Library moved there.

After French and Austrian rule, the Veneto was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866

Although the building had always been an open building site over the centuries, in the years following the annexation it began to present serious static problems.

It was mainly the two main bodies of the building, toward the Pier and toward the Piazzetta, that manifested structural failures. 

The loggias had many transverse and longitudinal tie-rods missing or broken, while the stone parts of the arches were affected by gaps and cracks, particularly in the capitals, shafts, cornices, and quadrilobal blocks.

There were disconnections and out-of-plumbs in the masonry and stone elements, and the rims, inserted to contain column breaks, were oxidized due to salty air and humidity.

The palace housed in those years several offices and functions that endangered its safety with respect to the risk of fire and which it was decided to relocate elsewhere, among them the quarter of the Military Police Guard, the Mercantile Exchange, the Trade Exchange, the Grand Guard Corps, the Firemen’s Stakeout, the Mercantile Court, the Chamber of Commerce, and the warehouses. On the loggia floor: the Marciana Library (transferred in 1904), the Librarian’s residence, the residence of the Keeper and Conservator of the Palace, the mineralogical collection of the Istituto Veneto di Scienze Lettere ed Arti. 

The intervention would be directed by Eng. Annibale Forcellini, who proposed to carry out a conservative static restoration whose stated purpose did not presuppose any restoration or integration work. However, during the work there would be many replacements and additions of stone elements and ashlars and a good number of capitals of the loggias now preserved in the Museo dell’Opera.

The vaults of the portico and the attic of the loggia were rebuilt, and the wooden frames above the loggias were partially replaced at the south and west facades. 

The work, beginning in 1876, focused on the lower and upper loggias of the main facades and involved the introduction of a new tie-rod system, different and more efficient than the pre-existing one, and in the restoration of the stone elements.

Other static work was also addressed during the construction site at the Paper Door and the loggias facing the courtyard.

From the twentieth century to the present

In 1923 the State entrusted the City of Venice with the management of the palace, which was opened to the public as a museum. 

Today, the Gothic loggia located on the second floor of the palace gives access to numerous rooms including the offices of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Architettonici e Paesaggistici di Venezia e Laguna, while the Renaissance loggia is overlooked by the management and offices of the Fondazione dei Musei Civici di Venezia, the entity of which the palace has been part since 1996.

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Frequently asked questions

What was the purpose of the Doge’s Palace in Venice?

The function of the building was to house the representative rooms of the city government, the seat of the courthouse and the apartments of the head of state of the Republic of Venice, namely the doge.

What is the Doge’s Palace famous for?

The palace owes its importance to its architecture, which is among the finest examples of Venetian Gothic architecture, to the wealth of artistic heritage it holds within it, and to the historical and symbolic value the building possesses; in fact, it housed the most important representative bodies of the Republic of Venice and the apartments of the doge.

Who lived in the Doge’s Palace in Venice?

The palace was the residence of the doge. As soon as he was elected, the head of state had to “move” inside the apartments reserved for him: about 20 rooms, a private chapel and a library.

What is inside the Doge’s Palace in Venice?

Inside the palace, in addition to the rooms of the main governing bodies of the Republic of Venice, you can admire a rich artistic and sculptural heritage commissioned and collected for centuries by its doges. Among the most famous are Tintoretto’s “Il Paradiso”, Vittore Carpaccio’s “Leone Marciano”, and Jacopo Sansovino’s statues of Mars and Neptune.


Here we are at the end of this long post on the history of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, in which I told you about its very unique architecture that reflects the culture of a republic that was among the most advanced states in Europe, and that with its inner courtyards, multiple loggias, and the refinement of its decorated rooms continues to fascinate travelers from all over the world.

If you have any doubts or other questions, leave a comment below, I will be happy to answer them!

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