Journalist for Life

Palace tour reveals Venice’s history of tough love

VENICE — Oversized, languorous figures in the richest of colors and reaching toward Heaven are splashed across the ceilings and walls of the Doge’s Palace in this beguiling city. What space is not covered with Renaissance masterpieces is gilded, or it erupts in sculpted plaster flourishes.

It was good, a few centuries ago, to be a resident of the rich city-state of Venice.

Good, indeed, as long as you were behaving in a manner approved by the all-powerful figures who controlled commoners, kept a suspicious eye on each other and even had their watchdogs matching strides with the head of state, the appointed-for-life doge (pronounced DOHzh).

But if three of your fellow citizens were willing to give secret testimony about your morals or activities, you would see a part of the Doge’s Palace that Venetians and visitors learned to dread. The decorations were far less grand, though one room had a unique feature: a rope hanging from the ceiling.

Unlike those who lived for centuries near the Palace’s secret rooms, today’s visitors can leave when they want to.

The “Secret Itinerary of the Doge’s Palace” is a 75-minute guided tour that starts in the sun-splashed courtyard but moves quickly through back stairways into the darkest places, not merely of the palace but of the mind and heart.

Your guide begins innocently enough: She says you will learn about the “administration of justice” from the early 1300s until 1797, when splendid Venice fell to Napoleon’s ambition.

The Palace of the Doge held offices of the bureaucracy, the courts and the doge’s residence. The Palace presents to the throngs in the Piazza of St. Mark’s an almost delicate, lacelike facade of arches and tracery that belies the iron grip the presiding merchant/nobles had.

Suspicious minds

As the tour moves away from a second-story loggia, or arcade, the guide capsules the intricate overlap of departments and councils created by Venice’s governance by suspicious aristocrats.

Much of the ultimate decisionmaking was held by the Council of 10, so powerful that it dictated the political and moral behavior for the citizens.

Council members decreed, for instance, that no one could even meet with a foreigner without first seeking permission. Then, debriefings were held after such meetings.

As moral watchdogs, the city’s judges and bureaucratic rulers decreed how much jewelry was too much and also decided that the one-upsmanship in lavishly decorating the nobles’ gondolas would stop: Henceforth, gondolas would be painted a simple black. They still are.

Climbing four stories of back stairways, the Palace tour participants step on treads worn from seven centuries of use.

One of the tour stops is in the Secret Archives, an airy, wood-paneled room. Here, scribes copied reports from the government’s spies, from the willing citizenry and from those persons who had not volunteered information the rulers considered pertinent.

Crime and punishment

Another room on the Secret Itinerary is not much bigger than the bedroom of a modern house but is two stories tall.

On two walls, doors have been cut in the wood, with a metal grate in each door at about eye level. These are the doors to the cells for suspects. At one end of the room is a table on a raised platform and behind it, chairs for the inquisitors, for this is the Torture Interrogation Room.

There is no chair for the suspect facing the inquisitors. Instead, hands tied behind his back, the suspect stood facing the inquisitors. Through his arms would be passed a rope, which had been fed through a hook on a beam overhead.

First the prisoner was raised off the floor by pulling on the rope. Then the inquisitors would put a question to him, and the suspect would be lowered, to answer. If there was no answer, the rope would be yanked again and the prisoner raised up.

Another question, another release of the rope and a pause for an answer. If need be, there would be another yank on the rope. And another . . .

This was simply the trial, not the punishment. Those who were found guilty of repeatedly stealing would have their right hand cut off. Those who lied had their noses cut off. Those who blasphemed had their tongue cut out.

Not every guilty party was mutilated. There were jail cells for the lesser offenders. And that is where perhaps the most famous Venetian of all, Giacomo Casanova, was sent.

After spying on him for eight months, the government did not charge Casanova with what was to gain him fame: his romantic conquests of the married and unmarried (he is said to have had more than 140 lovers).

Instead, Casanova was imprisoned for cheating at cards and for speaking against the church. He was sentenced to five years in an attic cell.

A plan, of sorts

One day when Casanova was taking his exercise in the palace attic under its lead roof, he found a metal tool, which he was to hide in an armchair a patron had provided. He began calculating an escape.

And on the night of Oct. 31, 1756, Casanova made his move to join the merrymakers out that Halloween night.

He and another inmate went up, through the roof of his cell. But while they were able to get down into hallways from the attic, they found themselves locked inside the sprawling palace.

So the two simply waited near the main door for the guard to unlock it the next morning. They bolted past him, ran through St. Mark’s Square, grabbed a boat and rowed to the mainland. Casanova was not to return for 18 years.

If you go

Tour prices for adults start at about $25. To book, go to Specify the English-language tour.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

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