The Doge was the ruler of Venice and the title derives from Latin dux or commander (duke in English). It was used in Venice from 697AD until the fall of the Republic in 1797. During those thousand years the position evolved from primitive military commander to king-like figure and eventually mere figurehead. Early Doges were good with a sword and eager to use it but once physical strength was no longer essential the role evolved into a quasi monarchy.
Becoming a Doge was nearly as complicated as becoming a pope and the elaborate and complicated rules of the election system were intended to dissuade over eager aristocrats from taking shortcuts to power. In the city’s 15th century heyday the Doge’s primary responsibility was representing Venice during public ceremonies and proceeding over diplomatic relations with other states. He could recommend foreign policy but his advice was not always taken and he wasn’t allowed to meet with ambassadors without the presence of counselors.
Towards the end of the Republic power was severely limited. The last Doges could not marry foreign princesses, abdicate, write or receive letters without a witness, conduct business, own land outside the palace or leave the city without permission. They became symbolic magistrates with the nicest gondola on the Grand Canal. The biggest benefit was residing in the most prestigious palazzo in town. Each Doge, however, was required to pay for furnishings and expenses, which meant only the richest Venetians could aspire to the position. Paintings of Doges can be seen inside Palazzo Ducale and they are usually portrayed wearing scarlet robes with fur collars and oddly shaped hats.
The Doge’s Palace (Palazzo Ducale)
Palazzo Ducale (Piazza San Marco 1, tel. 041/271-5911, www.palazzoducale.visitmuve.it, Apr.-Oct. 8:30am-7pm, Nov.-Mar. 8:30am-5:30pm, €19, €20 with tour or Museum Pass, audio guide €5) is where the Doge resided and the Venetian senate met. It was the epicentre of Venetian power and the place to understand the city’s political might.
A fixed itinerary leads visitors through grand chambers where city counselors gathered and weapons were stocked. Sala dei Consigli is the highlight and has a way of making everything else look small. It’s one of the biggest rooms in Europe and where up to 2,000 counselors met the Doge every Sunday to express their grievances and where new Doge’s were elected. The ceiling and walls are covered in paintings depicting Venice’s greatest triumphs and the portraits of 76 Doges. It’s easy to get a neck ache looking up at the art depicting how the city looked (and continues to look) and how the elite of the past once dressed. The hall is lined with wooden benches and no matter how crowded the palace gets there’s always space to sit and admire it all.
The Doge’s Palace is the most visited monument in Venice. Lines form early, but if you arrive at 9am the ticket office is nearly empty. Secret itineraries (daily, 9:55am, 10:45am and 11:35am) or hidden treasures (daily, 11:45am) tours are also available. These 75-minute guided walks through the lesser-known parts of the palazzo are conducted in English. They only cost 1 euro more than a regular ticket and afterwards you’re free to visit the rest of the palace. Reservations are required and although it can be done online calling is the simplest option. Security has increased recently and visitors may be checked with metal detectors. All backpacks and large bags must be left at the cloackroom on the right side of the courtyard.
Festa della Sensa
Festa della Sensa is one of Venice’s oldest celebrations and began around 1000AD as a way of marking the city’s maritime rise to dominance. The Doge’s ship would lead boats out of the lagoon into the open sea where prayers were recited to San Nicolo the patron saint of sailors. The dropping of a precious ring by the Doge was later added as a symbolic marriage between the city and the sea. The ritual is reenacted on the last Sunday in May with great pomp. These days the mayor leads the procession, which is best viewed from the northern shore of the Lido.
Pan di Doge is a sweet biscuit baked in honor of the doge and covered with almonds. It’s available in pastry shops around the city. If you prefer ice-cream Crema del Doge (vanilla cream) is another gastronomic tribute to the Doge.
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