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22.12.2023
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The Doge's Palace burns

Palazzo Ducale - Doge's Palace Giants Staircase

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It was December 20th 1577. 4 days before Christmas Eve.

The bells were ringing frenetically. Alarm! Alarm! Wads of smoke with a deep red glow covered the sky threateningly. Tongues of flames were licking dangerously at the Doge’s Palace. Agitated men could be seen everywhere trying to extinguish the blaze: Numerous ladders were brought to the palace.

The Arsenalotti* began to climb these ladders to reach the top of the Doge’s Palace. The heat of the fire had liquefied the leaden roof. The hot and fluid lead rained down into the Hall of the Major Council and the Scrutinio. It was impossible to reach these two important halls without danger to life in order to extinguish the fire and save the masterpieces of Bellini, Titian, ... from the death in flames.

The Venetians were powerless and had to watch how the artworks of these important masters were transformed into ashes.

The Arsenalotti climbed recklessly the imposing Doge’s Palace, scaling themselves down with ropes into the two halls (the roofs had practically melted away) and were able to push back the blaze and extinguish it.

The condition of the Doge’s Palace was grave. The supporting walls were in precarious condition. The fresco of Guariento in the Major Council Hall was severely damaged. It was even considered to destroy the whole building and rebuild it from scratch, a project that fortunately wasn’t realized. Instead, new braces were installed and the building was supported from below in the corner next to the Ponte della Paglia (the “Hay Bridge” between the Doge’s Palace and the Prisons Building) by setting up supports in the arcades. (You can still see them in the painting of Canaletto from the 18th century! This structural support was only removed in the end of the 19th century during renovation works.)

The reconstruction

The halls were covered with a new roof and redecorated: The fresco of Guariento was replaced by publishing a tender offer (probably in 1582) that indicated precisely how the new painting had to look like. The jury was indecisive though and thus the project was given to two artists, Veronese and Bassano. But then Veronese died in 1588. The painting was not even started at that point and thus it was Tintoretto who got the commission and realized the majestic painting with the help of his son Domenico until 1592. Still today you can admire his masterpiece in the Doge’s Palace … and the damaged fresco too: Instead of tearing down the remains of the fresco, the painting of Tintoretto was positioned right above. The remains were discovered later on, taken down and are now visible in the Doge’s Palace.

*workers of the Arsenal (Shipyard)

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Venice - doge palace