Keys dangling, the Venetian gatekeeper waits long enough for me to pass through the secret entryway and into the narrow, dimly lit corridor.
Quickly closing the iron grille and the heavy wooden door it protects, she inserts one of her keys into the lock, gives it several deliberate turns, and CLICK, the little-known entrance is now bolted shut, with me trapped inside wondering if I’ll ever see the light of day again.
With Susan, a resident of Venice, an art historian and our expert guide, leading the way for our small party of four — including fellow blogger Orna O’Reilly — and Eva, the palace gatekeeper, bringing up the rear, there’s no doubt that we’ll make it out alive and live to see another day. Right ladies?
“Welcome to the Pozzi, or the Wells,” Susan proclaims, her voice echoing off the centuries-old, damp stone walls. “It’s the nickname given this series of cells by the prisoners they kept down here in the bowels of the Doge’s Palace.”
“Routinely,” she adds, “when Venice was under an aqua alta (high water) alert, these cells would quickly flood, placing the prisoners in peril.”
One of eight WoI guided tours available in La Serenissima, including Legendary Venice, the Secret Passages of the Doge’s Palace itinerary takes you back in time and places you squarely in the middle of the hidden world of politics of old Venice, where no one, absolutely no one, was above the law, not even the Doge himself, the city’s shrewdest elder statesman, and where justice was doled out swiftly and mercilessly.
Susan knows the route like the back of her hand as she guides us through the labyrinth of prison cells and torture chambers, narrating the scenes so graphically that the hairs on the nape of my neck stand up.
“This is the cell of the boia, the palace executioner,” she says. “He would secretly ply his trade on death-penalty prisoners via the swift slice of a sharp knife across the neck, or simple strangulation, or beheading with an axe, on that inclined, stone bed up against the wall.”
Just to add a bit more drama, she queries our group, “You’ve heard the expression, ‘Heads will roll,’ haven’t you? Well…”
Clutching my neck to make sure my noggin’s still attached, we march onward through narrow corridors and upward via creaky staircases, passing open windows with great views to the world outside, until we spy the private offices of the Great Chancellor, the city’s chief executive, and enter the ornate Chamber of the Secret Chancellery, whose walls are lined with cabinets that once contained public and highly-classified documents detailing the work of the Venetian magistrate.
Moving along, we arrive at the delightful Chamber of Torment.
It’s the Palace’s premier torture chamber where a prisoner, who has waited in the wings in total darkness for hours listening to the screams of his fellow inmates — actually, faux screams provided by paid actors for effect — is finally brought in with his hands tied behind his back, and fastened to a long rope and pulled upward by his arms.
In that awkward and painful position the interrogation begins and continues until said prisoner admits his wrongdoing or cries UNCLE! And that, my friend, is how you got the perp to confess in the Most Serene Republic of Venice.
Climbing to the floor just above the pulley where the inquisitor’s rope dangles, we arrive in the Piombi (lead), a special jail in the east wing of the Doge’s Palace, just underneath the lead-lined roof, where the all-powerful Council of Ten kept its most prized prisoners.
Unlike the Pozzi cells down in the basement, the Piombi were a series of spacious VIP cells reserved for political prisoners, those awaiting sentencing or those serving short terms.
The Piombi‘s most notable resident was Giacomo Casanova, the 18th century Venetian womanizer, adventurer and author, who was sentenced, without trial, to five years inside the “inescapable” prison. But, escape he did, and the rest is history.
Through the attic of the palace we follow close behind Prof. Susan who doles out historical footnotes along the way worthy of Jeopardy, the popular television quiz show, and her well-earned PhD.
“Did you know,” she explains, “that Antonio da Ponte, who designed the Rialto Bridge, also designed these complex wooden trusses that support the roof of the palace?” I did not know that.
Past display cases filled with 16th century Venetian and Ottoman weaponry — da botta (the blow) and da taglio (the cut) — we head down one more narrow staircase and through one more nondescript door until we finally leave behind the isolation and torment of the palace’s secret passages and merge with the general population now touring the opulent side of Doge’s Palace.
For over a millennium, Venice was a super rich, majestic and innovative maritime power that was the leader in trade and diplomacy between Europe and the Orient, and bridged the social, political and cultural divide between the two geographies like no other.
Doge’s Palace, a masterpiece of a structure, resplendent with priceless works of art, stands as the defining, grand symbol of Venice’s once legendary and, at times, secretive past.
The next time you’re in Venice, or are coming to visit her for the very first time, do yourself a favor and plan to take a walk through La Serenissima‘s historic past with Walks of Italy. For complete information on all their informative strolls around the City of Canals, as well as other major Italian cities, just click HERE.
©The Palladian Traveler