A masterpiece of late Gothic architecture, the Doges’ Palace was the centre of Venetian government and home, until 1797 of Venice’s elected rulers, the Doges. In 1788 the young William Beckford on his Grand Tour was swept away by the romantic history of the palace and Ruskin enthused about the beauty of the sculptures on the exterior of the Doge’s palace, as well as Tintoretto’s vast painting of Paradise in the Council Chamber. But Mark Twain was much less impressed: “in the Senate Chamber of the ancient Republic we wearied our eyes with staring at acres of historical paintings by Veronese and Tintoretto, but nothing struck us as forcibly as what strikes all visitors forcibly: a black square in the midst of the gallery of portraits…..blank except for a terse description that the conspirator had been executed for his crime”, the conspirator being Doge Faliero, whose beheading was powerfully reimagined by Delacroix.
Adjacent to the palace, and connecting it to the prison cells from which Casanova famously escaped, is the Bridge of Sighs, which seems to have held a particular fascination for the Romantics. It was popularised by Byron in the opening stanzas of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
“I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs
A Palace and a prison on each hand
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand,”
which were appended by Turner to his celebrated view of 1840.
But if Byron and Turner responded to the beauty of the scene, other visitors, such as Dickens, enjoyed the melodrama: