Financial Times, January 8th, 2005
Venice has many magical qualities, but its tendency to draw crowds isn’t one of them. So it is smugly satisfying to discover a way to avoid them entirely in the Palazzo Ducale (the Doge’s Palace), one of La Serenissima’s most popular attractions.
The “Secret Itinerary” is a private tour through parts of the palace that are not usually open to the public. A phone call at least a week in advance secures you a very special 90 minutes.
Having ascended the ornate, gilded steps of Scala d’Oro with the heaving masses, our guide unlocked a small, plain door and we left the hordes behind, slipping into a warren of tiny, wood-panelled offices where the real, day-to-day business of this, the nerve centre of the Venetian empire, took place.
The warren of tiny rooms is little changed from when the city’s clerks worked there in the 1790s – there are simple candle-sconces on the walls and scrubbed desks for the mountains of paperwork.
Up some narrow steps we came to the elegant chancellery, lined with map cupboards for storing treaties. Up again are the piombi, prison cells reserved for the more notorious criminals (petty offenders were kept on the ground floor). In his memoirs, Casanova tells of how he made a daring escape from here – stopping for a morning espresso at Caffe Florian before making his getaway by gondola.
We entered the torture chamber, where a single, ominous rope hangs from the rafters. Here, suspects were suspended by their wrists and questioned by the three “judges of the night”. But, the best is saved for last: right up under the eaves is the underside of a huge “floating” ceiling belonging to one of the state rooms below. Built by the Arsenale’s shipwrights in 1577, its muddle of criss-crossing beams is a formidable feat of engineering.
Emerging back into the public rooms we were invited to continue visiting the palace independently. We resisted. Somehow it would have felt too ordinary.
The “Secret Itinerary” costs Euros 315 per person, 00 39 041 520 9070.