Monday, October 26, 2009

Two hours at the Doge's Palace

The Doge's Palace is pre-programmed. No more wandering around aimlessly; there is a well-travelled track from which it is difficult to deviate.

I knew what I wanted to see, but had to go through things I didn't want to see to get there. As often happens, I blundered into several perfect moments in which the building revealed itself to me in its full splendor.

The first stop on the route consists of several rooms with the original sculpture from the building's exterior, especially the decorative capitals and one spectacular section of the flower-like archwork that makes the windows so majestic. You can see their design clearly, at eye level, rather than cranning your neck from a distance.

The capitals of the columns, the broad neckband that funnels the weight of the building down through the columns to the floor, are wreathed with leaves. Scenes of daily life, from high to low, are nestled in these wreaths. They are studded with faces that were not carved for ideal beauty. This is what distinguishes them from antiquity before them and the renaissance after them. They represent, instead real life as it happened daily in all its countless permutations. Some of the faces are beautiful; some are grotesque. Most fall in between. They are the butcher, the baker, the soldier, the priest, the knight, the monarch, the saint. Everyone in the crowd is there.

Each is carved in his proper setting, nestled amid the thick acanthus leaves. He or she wears the appropriate dress for his or her station. If you follow around the capitals, they often tell stories. More often than not, however, they are an encyclopedia of human types. One capital features men of every known race while others display occupations arranged by category.

Farther on there is a fragment of a capital from a lower order column, with no people, no faces, rendered beautiful by the sumptuous curves of fat leaves.

From the Basin side of the first floor you can see San Giorgio Maggiore through the arches. You could not have seen it during the Byzantine and Gothic periods because it wasn't there. You would only have seen the island it was later built upon floating in the lagoon.

On the opposite side of the Rio wing, behind the Doge's apartments, the Palace abuts the apse of the basilica of San Marco. A passageway links the Doge's bedroom to what was, after all, his very own chapel. The rear view of that particular apse is revelatory.

The five-dome plan of San Marco was based on the Church of the Holy Apostles in Istanbul, then Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Church of the Apostles did not survive; its dilapidated ruins were later transformed into a mosque and there is no record of its original appearance except for an image from 1162 which shows the five dome profile. You need to look at San Marco to understand what the second greatest church of the Byzantines looked like.

The rear apse of San Marco was not decorated like the facades; the elegant lines of the brickwork are evident. You can see the Byzantine structure beneath the florid Gothic and Renaissances overlays, topped the great dome which covers the original smaller dome underneath with a crown of lead sheathing.

Think about any building. The floors are certainly simple: a flat surface. The roof is probably a pitched flat surface, the walls are vertical flat surfaces. Putting holes in these surfaces is a more complex problem, especially when you are building with brick. Because windows were difficult, they were found more often in public buildings and rich homes than in buildings devoted to work and to the people who did it. The massive windows were one of the glories of the Baths of Diocletian, designed specifically to woo a spoiled and fickle populace, and certainly captured the imagination of Palladio.

At the time the Doge's Palace was being built, other castles in Europe were armed fortresses, with square towers at the corners and thick brick and stone walls. The windows were few, small, often only narrow slits just wide enough to fire an arrow through. They were often on hilltops making them draughty, cold in the winter and cool but airless in the summer because there was no ventilation.

Compared to these in their countless permutations on terrafirma, the Doge's Palace is utterly fantastic. It is filled with windows. It was created to admit as much light as possible. In some places that was difficult, but the sides facing the basin and the piazetta have an extraordinary amount of windows open to the breezes and to the sun, and can be shuttered in the wet heat of July and August.

Even late in fall -- today is 26 October, and it is mid-afternoon -- the light in the Room of the Maggiore Consiglio is dazzling.

The Sala del Maggior Consiglio is overwhelming on several levels. First by its sheer size; it is 177 feet long, 82 feet wide and 50 feet high. A professional basketball court is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide. You could drop two of them into the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, which is as tall as a basketball court is wide.

Because it is flooded with light today, it is almost pointless to look at the oil on canvas paintings on the walls and ceilings. It is better simply to enjoy the space and the light. The room is a rectangle. Its long sides face the basin and the interior courtyard respectively. The far wall faces the piazzetta. Before the gold baroque woodwork of Venice's decline, these walls were covered with long vanished frescoes by the greatest masters of the late medieval and early renaissance periods.

The devastating fire in 1577 which almost totally destroyed that entire wing of the Doge's Palace happened at a very fortuitous time. Andrea Palladio was attempting to build in Venice the buildings of his dreams. He drew up plans for a new Rialto Bridge after the third wooden one burned burned down, a Roman market spanning the Grand Canal. After the fire, he drew plans for a new Doge's Palace , which would have remade it in Palladio's own image. His antagonist in this venture was Antonio da Ponte, the proto, or architectural czar, of the Republic. Da Ponte won. They used his design for the Rialto Bridge and he was put in charge of rebuilding at the Doge's Palace. Perhaps the fire was only an accident that opened the door of opportunity. Either way, it slammed shut in Palladio's face.

Another overwhelming feature of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio is its 14,000 square foot unsupported ceiling. There are no posts or columns; only the four walls. It is a Venetian creation, a shipbuilder's ceiling. It is an upside-down boat; the ceiling is the deck and the ribbing extends high up into the attic above. The timbers used for its construction were pickled in brine and dried to stone before they were assembled, and they bear the weight of the lead roofing. The upside-down ship is suspended, it hangs down over the room, resting only on the four walls, the stress transferred out and down the heavy outer walls of the building.

Using the deck of an upside-down boat for the ceiling of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio was not an innovation. They had been doing it in churches for centuries. But the scale of this ceiling was staggering, and, commensurate with its size, was the number of windows.

There are five windows under graceful gothic arches along the wall facing the basin. They are immense. The room is not as sublimely luminous as St. Chapelle with its walls of stained glass, but Sainte-Chapelle is only 114' by 36', half the size of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, although it is a third taller. The Sala del Maggior Consiglio was designed to accommodate the full Major Counsel, which numbered up to 1,600 bodies; the entire male Venetian aristocracy over the age of 25.

The light through the windows is golden, a brilliant glare of sun and its watery reflections in the terrazzo floor. In those days, light was the ultimate luxury. The rich could afford windows, and in Venice the most singular feature of all the palaces is their windows. When the princes of Europe paid state visits, they were received in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. How could they not draw the contrast between their dark and drafty castles and this stupendous space filled with air and light and the most beautiful paintings on the walls and ceilings.

On the one side the sun reflects off the green-blue water of the basin. On the other side there are only three windows, but they face the open inner courtyard of the palace and the bright blue sky over the domes and spires of San Marco. Two windows on the far wall catch the sun as it moves west. The long wall on the basin side faces southwest. Its five windows on the water are oriented toward the long arc of the sun rising over Lido and setting over the mainland.

There are only three windows on the couryard side because the place of the final two is occupied by the hall of the magistrature and the Sala del Scrutinio, the room in which the votes were counted when the Maggior Consiglio voted or elected a new Doge and other officials of the Republic.

There is a triumphal Roman arch at the far end of the Sala del Scrutinio. We are in the Renaissance where Imperial Rome still sets the bar for grandeur. A spectacularly large window opens onto the balcony over the Piazzetta.

Here, as throughout the Palace, two styles contend; gothic splendor and renaissance dreams of ancient Rome. You have to mentally strip away the encrustations of time and decadence to get back to the way these rooms felicitously created an exalted light-filled space decorated with frescoes.

The current paintings were painted after the 1577 fire. They celebrate historical events that never happened, but which certified the Serene Republic's equal footing with the Popes of Rome to the south and the Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire to the north. Strip them away and the room remains spectacular. It is the scale and measure, the nobility and transparency of the structure itself, the deployment of walls and floors, doors and windows, that make this building one of the most beautiful in the world, and very little else on this scale poses a challenge, with the exception of the Parthenon, the Pantheon, and the remaining structures of the antiquity. This Palace was the jewel of the Republic and the envy of the world. Nothing built since matches its evocative and innovative beauty.

But it requires work to see it. What exists today in the Doge's Palace is Venice past its peak, a moribund Venice living on its glorious past. The truly splendid Venice, Venice at the acme of its wealth and power, the seductive queen of the seas and the ruthless prince of merchants, back in the days when the walls were movies and everything told a story, is left forever to our imagination.

You can't take pictures on the inside, but the exterior tells the same story, differently, in the DOGE'S PALACE GALLERY.

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