Venice – The Doge’s Palace

The white limestone and pink marble Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) was the official residence of the doges and the seat of the republic of Venice’s government. We arrived early and managed to get tickets for the ‘Secret Itineraries’ tour which takes us through concealed doors and hidden passageways to the cells from which Casanova escaped.

Venice – The Doge’s Palace (Image courtesy of **Mary** @Flickr)

We stopped at a stone carving in the wall of a face. The face was framed by a headscarf gathered in bunches at the temples. Its piercing eyes glared out from below a monobrow as wild as a line of breaking surf. The mouth was open, a hole through which a letter could be slipped. This was the Bocca di Leone, a mailbox in the wall of the Doge’s palace to post accusations to the magistrates. Words carved in the stone below translated to “Secret denunciations against those who conceal bribes to officials or will collude to hide the true revenue from [the authorities]”. Essentially it was where you could dob someone in for tax fraud.

We climbed the magnificent Scala d’Oro, (golden staircase) and then slipped through a door to start the ‘secret’ part of the tour. The offices of the Doge’s secretary, the keeper of the secret archives and even the Grand Chancellor were remarkably Spartan compared to the lavish and ornate decoration of the rest of the palace. We passed through the Torture Room where a single rope hung ominously from the roof into the centre of the room and climbed up to the piombi (the leads), half a dozen cells in an area under the lead roof of the palace. This was the original prison before the new prison across the Bridge of Sighs was built and continued to be used for certain offenders, typically political prisoners.

Casanova was imprisoned in the piombi following his arrest in 1755, when he was accused of being a Freemason, spreading antireligious propaganda and dabbling in magic, all of which appear to have been true. He was sentenced to five years imprisonment, but fifteen months later on Halloween night 1756 he made a daring escape which he detailed in his bestselling memoirs “The story of my escape from the Piombi”. During his daily exercise in the prison attic he found a metal door-bolt which he shaped into a chisel using a small slab of black marble and kept hidden in an upholstered armchair he had been allowed to bring into his cell. His first attempt at escape was to dig through the floor of his cell, concealing the hole with his bed. Just as he was nearing completion, he was moved to another cell and had to bribe and blackmail the gaoler, Lorenzo, to keep his secret and fix the hole. He managed to keep his chisel but Lorenzo checked the walls and floor of his new cell daily making a second attempt using the same technique impossible.

After complaining of a lack of reading material, Casanova was given permission to exchange books with the prisoner above him. By exchanging notes concealed in the books, he and the prisoner, a monk named Marino Balbi, generated an escape plan. Casanova slipped the monk the chisel by concealing it in the spine of a particularly large bible. The monk dug a hole in the floor of his cell, which was the ceiling of Casanovas, and a hole in his wall which he hid behind a religious poster. A few hours after Lorenzo had completed his rounds on Halloween night, Casanova climbed into the monk’s cell and together they climbed out the hole in the wall onto the roof, and by breaking a small lattice window, into another room. From this room they worked their way through various rooms, breaking locks to open doors if necessary until they passed down the golden staircase. They found the main door locked and were unable to break through it. Casanova stuck his head out a window and convinced a man standing in the courtyard that he had been locked in by mistake on the previous day and sent him to get the porter. When the porter unlocked the door, Casanova and the monk dashed out, ran to the canal and jumped into a gondola to Mestre.

We passed through the Sala degli Inquisitori (Inquisitors Room). The Inquisitori alla Propagazione dei Segreti dello Stato, (Inquisitors for the maintenance of state secrets) were a sort of secret police, a shadowy body of three men tasked with protecting state secrets. This is the room Casanova would have dropped into has his original escape attempt been successful, punching straight through the beautiful ceiling of the room, decorated by painter Tintoretto.

The Sala del Maggior Consiglio (the Hall of the Great Council), is absolutely huge and lavishly decorated. It took us a moment to find the frieze of paintings of the doges, and locate the painted black curtains that are in place of the 55th doge, Marino Faliero. Faliero was caught planning a coup and the black curtains are part of ‘Damnatio Memoriae’, whereby all traces of a person are expunged from history or memory. Beheading and mutilating him wasn’t considered punishment enough.

We crossed over the Ponte dei Sospiri (Bridge of Sighs) to the prisons. The bridge was built in 1602, but its current name wasn’t coined until the19th century by Lord Byron. He suggested that prisoners would sigh sadly as they looked out the tiny window at their final view of Venice before being taken down to their cells.  Not sure what name the bridge went by for the first two centuries.

Reaching our daily limit of history and culture we exited, pausing to gaze out of one of the gift shop windows. The window provides an uninterrupted a view of Neptune’s marble buttocks as he stands unaware at the top of the Giant’s staircase. I suppose he had plenty to distract him, he overlooks the spot were the Doge’s were crowned.

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