Church & State in the City of Masks

It’s easy to think of Venice as a quaint tourist mecca, but this water-veined city once held sway from northern Italy all the way down to the island of Cyprus. In the Renaissance, this would have been one of the most powerful city-states in Europe, controlling trade routes, championing art, and ready to deploy a terrifying navy at a moment’s notice. Venice also developed into one of the Renaissance world’s only republics; the noblemen elected their leader, or doge, who served in this remarkable palace…


…boldly facing the sea:


You can visit the Doge’s Palace today, and while you won’t see how the doge lived in the 15th and 16th centuries, you’ll certainly get a good sense of how he and his councilmen ruled. You’ll start with the same sense of wonder and awe that visitors would have felt when the golden staircase — the ceremonial entrance to both the doge’s apartments and the government chambers — appeared before them.


The frescoes and decorative work on these ceilings are impressive …


… and they just get more and more so …


… as you move from room to room:


This artwork was all commissioned by various doges, and much of it was designed specifically to celebrate and display the might of Venice. Indeed, the city’s accomplishments — both real and mythological — are everywhere. We see them in the central circle above (in Nicolo Bambini’s Juno Presenting Venice With the Peacock and Thunderbolt), in Veronese’s Venice Receiving the Doge’s Corono Hat From Juno …


… and in Tintoretto’s The Triumph of Venice:


There are also winged lions, ancient symbols of Venice, everywhere:


But these rooms did not exist simply to boast and impress; they were also highly functional. In this room, councils sat (on what appear to be rather small and uncomfortable benches) to hear issues regarding maritime trade and foreign policy:


This is is where you would have found the Senate, a body of very wealthy men who oversaw political and financial matters regarding manufacturing and trade:


The Quarantia Criminale, or criminal court, had much simpler and more severe decoration …


… while The Chamber of the Great Council, where every nobleman of Venice was invited to vote on various issues and elect new doges, was grandly decorated — fitting for one of the largest rooms in all of Europe:


A print shows what it would have looked like filled with voting members of the Republic several centuries ago:


The Chamber of the Scrutinio, a room for electoral counting and deliberations, has another grand ceiling and a triumphal arch:


The Doge’s Palace has also long been home to an armory, much of which is still arranged in exactly the same layout that it would have been in the seventeenth century:


You can’t see the residential space — I’m not sure how well that’s been preserved. Instead, at the moment the doge’s quarters now house an art exhibit titled From Titian to Reubens: Masterpieces from Antwerp and Other Flemish Collections. This exhibit looks at Flemish art and influence in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and I really enjoyed it. Here’s a sampling of some fo the works you’ll find there:

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If you visit the Doge’s Palace, you can also see the courtyard, which backs straight into St. Mark’s (indeed, the doge had his own private entrance to the basilica):


Standing outside, you can really get a sense of the Venetian Gothic architecture:

fullsizeoutput_5e32… and the wonderful mix of arches:


A separate section of the Doge’s Palace houses the dimly-lit Museo Dell’Opera, which is home to thirty-two capitals and a variety of other 14th and 15th century architectural features (these were original to the palace, which has been re-built several times following various fires and restorations):


At first, I thought this section was pretty random — but then I got caught up in the fun of studying the figures on the capitals:


I also really liked the scale model of the scaffolding they built when they did restoration work on the palace in the 1870s:


Prior to the Renaissance, the doge worshipped privately at his own chapel: St. Mark’s:


This famous church, part Italian and part Byzantine, is filled with wonders stolen from Byzantium during various crusades. Built largely in the 11th and 12th centuries, it became a state church during the Renaissance, and it eventually worked its way up to becoming a basilica in the early 1800s. It’s incredibly impressive, famous for its riotous architecture …


… its grand golden domes …


… and its endless mosaics, which can be found on the walls, on the ceilings …


… and on every section of the floor …


… in ceramic, marble, and many other stones:


Note that I took several of these pictures at the entrance, before a guard kindly told me that there are no photos allowed in the basilica itself. I’m guessing that they want to put an emphasis on prayer — and that, equally importantly, they don’t want movement through the cathedral slowed down by the giant throngs of tourists gawking with their selfie sticks (though on a chilly morning in winter, there were relatively few visitors).

A visit to St. Mark’s is free, but it’s worth paying the extra Euros to visit the museum — because that ticket also comes with a sky-high view of the basilica’s interior and access to the outdoor balcony. From the here, you can get an up-close look at a few mosaics …fullsizeoutput_5edb

… and the many marbles with which the basilica was built:


But the real selling points are the views of the Doge’s Palace and the Grand Canal …


… St. Mark’s Plaza …


… the clock tower …


… and the Triumphal Quadriga, four bronze Roman horses looted by Venice and set as a symbol of victory and might on the facade of St. Mark’s (these are copies — the real ones are inside the museum):


I loved seeing St. Mark’s both inside and out — there’s a reason it’s one of the most famous cathedrals in the world!



2 responses to “Church & State in the City of Masks

  1. Pingback: How to Enjoy Venice in Winter | Traveler Tina·

  2. Pingback: Milan’s Hidden Gem: the Museo Poldi Pezzoli | Traveler Tina·

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