One of Venice's biggest attractions is the spectacular Doge's Palace, also known as the Palazzo Ducale. Much of the present building dates from the 15th century – although an earlier building on the spot may date back to the 9th century - has been rebuilt and added several times. The building was constructed in a dazzling pink and white marble design and has been described - fairly accurately - as an oversized wedding cake.
The Doge's Palace was the Doge's residence – or chief magistrate – until the Venetian Empire's fall in 1797. The building still occupies a prime location in Venice – situated between the lagoon and the small square known as the Piazza San Marco (St. Mark's Square). One reason for its strategic location was to impress visitors who arrived in the city by sea.
The entire palace is ornately decorated, although several rooms in the palace shouldn't be missed. Perhaps the most well-known and spectacular room in the entire building is the huge Grand Council Chamber – in which over 2000 people routinely used to meet at one time.
The Council Chamber contains many paintings on the walls, including portraits of the 76 Doges that have ruled Venice over the years. One of the portraits is that of the Doge Marin Faliero, accused of treason and beheaded in 1355. To this day, his painting is still covered with black cloth.
The Council Chambers are filled with many other paintings. One of the most spectacular is a vast painting called Paradise by the artist Tintoretto – supposedly the world's largest oil canvas. Tintoretto was in his 70s when he created the painting – an amazing achievement.
Of the other rooms at the palace, also worth seeing is the Senate Chamber. In this room, the Senate, which consisted of a select group of 200 men, regularly met to pass laws. Tintoretto's masterpiece can be found in this room – The Triumph of Venice painted on the ceiling.
Even the entrance to the Doge's Palace is impressive. The Giant's Staircase, as it is known, was designed by Sansovino and led from the courtyard to the main palace entrance and was only used by the Doges – never by ordinary citizens. The Giant's Staircase is so-called because of Neptune and Mars' two giant statues at the top of the stairs – symbolizing the state's control over both sea and land.
Almost as well known as the palace itself is the romantically named Bridge of Sighs, which may be Venice's best known and most photographed bridge. The bridge links the palace to the nearby prison, and the name was supposedly coined by Casanova, who imagined the condemned prisoners taking their last breath while they crossed the bridge.
Casanova himself was perhaps the most famous prisoner at the Doge's Palace – he was imprisoned for purportedly being a freemason and publishing anti-religious material. You can still see the cell that the infamous womanizer spent his time in.
Among his other claims to fame, Casanova was also the only person to escape from the prison by prying up the floorboards in his cell. He then managed to flee from Venice by the sea – supposedly having time to stop for a cup of coffee in St Marks Square on the way.
The Doge's Palace can be toured individually. But one of the best ways to see the palace is to take the Secret Itineraries guided tour. This acclaimed tour takes visitors behind the scenes and shows many of the enormous building secrets – secret rooms, hidden passageways, and the torture chamber.
Venice has many great monuments and museums. But a visit to the Doge's Palace will give you a memorable insight into the very people who ruled Venice for so long and had so much influence over its destiny.