Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

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.

Will I? Of course I will. You see, I’m a guest of Walks of Italy (WoI), invited along to experience firsthand its Secret Passages of the Doge’s Palace VIP-escorted tour.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

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.”

Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

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.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

“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…”

Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

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.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

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.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

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.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

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.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

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.

Whew!

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.

Unlocking the Secrets of the Doge's Palace | ©thepalladiantraveler.com

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

Borsalino w/ props SMALL | ©Tom Palladio Images

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Written by The Palladian Traveler

Tom traded his hometown St. Louis Cardinals' baseball cap in the United States for a Borsalino and he now hangs his "capello" in the Puglia region of southeastern Italy. A veteran print and broadcast journalist, with well-worn passports that have got him into and out of 50 countries and counting, Tom fell in love with the "Bel Paese" years ago. As he notes, "I'm inspired by the beauty I find in all things that are very, very old, and reliving history, or at least meandering along cobblestone streets that were laid down over a thousand years ago and just looking up and marveling at what occupies the space still today, really gets my 'Vespa' running." Tom has a good eye behind the lens and is a graphic storyteller, but he'll let you decide as he keeps his camera batteries fully charged and the posts flowing from his creative hideaway in the hills overlooking Ostuni. You can also follow his dispatches along the cobblestone via TravelingBoy.com.

6 comments

  1. I lived near Venice last year and made it my mission to go on as many guided tours as possible. The Secret Passages tour of Palazzo Ducale was possibly my favorite! Such a fun and fascinating bit of history. Those tiny cells were unbelievable. Quite a place. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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