The Doge’s Palace – Column Capitals, is a fascinating narrative.  Most visitors to Venice will admire the Doge’s Palace in the Piazzetta di San Marco; with its external arcades of many columns and wonderful carved capitals.   One of the city’s main attractions; there are an overwhelming number of images to take in.  However, it is worth spending time admiring them, because few visitors will understand the fascinating story and symbolism they represent – essentially a “book in stone”

The Doge’s Palace, was the seat of power and the symbol of good governance and of the strength of the Venetian Republic. These capitals decorated with 600 carved images, form a story that brings together the created world and divine majesty.


 

The narrative comprises scenes that celebrate justice, wisdom and prayer- mixing allegory and moral precepts, history and myth, the sacred and the secular. It draws on sources from the bible to Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblio (Astrological Predictions).

The works on the outside of the building, were carved between 1340-1355, by craftsmen of the Stone-Carvers Guild. Following restoration in the late 19th C, thirteen of the capitals in the external arcades were replaced by copies. The numbered originals can be viewed in the Museum of the Palace Fabric, inside the Doge’s Palace.

The corner sculptural groups. The three much larger corner sculptural groups, have a central role in the overall narrative and depict Adam and Eve, The Drunkenness’ of Noah and the Judgement of Solomon. They highlight the role of Christian precepts, as the basis for the political structure of the Venetian Republic.

 

 

The Doge’s Palace – Column Capitals

The story starts at the southwest corner of the palace, with the creation of Adam, the eating of the forbidden fruit and the presence of the Archangel Michael (who stood guard of the gates of Paradise). This signifies the opening of human history. The Archangel also guards the chamber of the Grand Council nearby, which also is dominated by Tintoretto’s massive painting of II Paradiso!

On the south-east corner, near to the Bridge of Sighs, is the Drunkenness of Noah. This shows Cham deriding his father, whilst his two other sons try to cover up his nakedness. The latter along with the Archangel Raphael, serve to symbolise both filial devotion and hope in the resurrection.

On the northeast corner near to the Porta de Ila Carta, is the Judgement of Solomon, together with the Archangel Gabriel. Both images are concerned with the Good News of the Messiah. This corner sculpture however, is a later work attributed to Bon (c. 1435).

The thirteen Capitals in the Arcades. The following numbered scenes described below, can be used to identify the original capitals, found in the Museum of the Fabric. In this scheme No. 1, is the sculptural group of the Judgement of Solomon adjacent to the Porta di Carta; extending to No. 36, the Drunkenness of Noah, near to the bridge of Sighs.

Birds with their Prey (No.35). According to Claudius Ptolemy, birds were affected by the signs of the solstice and equinox and symbolised the life of the senses. A bird can be seen eating a fish and a Stork devouring a serpent.

The Latin Peoples (No.34). Also known as the “Family of the Crusader”, the capital comprises the heads of a soldier and other male and female figures.  In the Middle Ages, the characteristics of people from various latitudes were thought to be influenced by the planets and signs of the zodiac that ruled over these different territories; a notion linked with Ptolemy’s “universal astrology”.

Kings and Emperors (No.32). A line of monarchs from the wise Nebuchadnezzar (his fleur-de-lis sceptre symbolises Good Government founded on the purity of the soul); to the Roman Emperor Trajan (whose sword symbolises military power and justice). Astrologically, placed under the domination of Jupiter- the doctrine of planetary associations serves to explain the birth, rise and fall of dynasties and kingdoms.

 

 

The Doge’s Palace – Column Capitals

Latin women (No.31). This capital of Latin women, under the influence of Mars and Jupiter; comprises a series of female heads, whose head-ware and hair styles reflect their age and social status.

Seven Deadly Sins (No.27), The seven deadly sins are depicted along with Vanity. Each allegory is underlined by a Latin inscription. Lust is a young woman wearing pearls, who uncovers her breast, whilst gazing into a mirror. Gluttony is a figure raising a cup of wine, whilst eating into a leg of meat. Pride is a warrior wearing a horned helmet of Satan and bearing a shield depicting a fire spitting dragon. Wrath has windswept hair whilst tearing at his cloths.  Avarice is an old woman, grasping two money bags in her fists. Sloth is an idle woman whose apathy drains away; symbolised by the leafless branches of a tree twisted around her body. Envy is an old woman depicted with various animals; a dragon and serpents. Vanity is crowned by flowers, (thus linked with Lust).

People of Various Latitudes (No.21). Depicted with great realism, the peoples of the earth represent a theme linked with astrology. One can make out the figure of a Moor in a turban, a pug­ nosed Tartar and an old man wearing a cap decorated with two small lions of St Marl<.

Solomon and the Sages, symbolising the Liberal Arts (No.20). Represented here are the group of seven wise men, symbolising the liberal arts of the Trivium (three pathways which meet) – Grammar (Priscian), Dialectics/Logic (Aristotle) and Rhetoric (Cicero). Representing the Quadrivium (four pathways that meet) -Arithmetic (Pythagoras), Geometry (Euclid), Music (Tubal, according to medieval tradition the inventor of art) and Astronomy (Ptolemy, the author of Tetrabiblios – the source of inspiration for this whole decorative scheme).

This capital reminds us that human wisdom and knowledge are derived from divine knowledge. The exercise of Good Government can open the gates to Paradise, to which we can never gain access; except through knowledge of laws governing the universe.

The Houses of the Planets (No.19). The narrative on the two external sides of the palace, pivots around the capital depicting the Creation of Adam and was described by the critic John Ruskin as the “the finest in Europe”. The eight-sided capital, depict scenes that draw on the Book of Genesis and on Greek mythology. The seven planets are sculpted, combined with the twelve signs of the zodiac and the different seasons of human life.

Side 1: depicts Adam, newly created by God the Father. Side 2: Saturn, a bearded old man seated on Capricorn and raising the jug of Aquarius – this planet was associated with poverty, the exhaustion of old age, captivity and famine. Side 3: Jupiter, represented by the centaur Chiron, is shown between Pisces and Sagittarius; who raised Achilles and Jason. Side. 4: Mars seated between Libra and Scorpio, is represented by a warrior with sword and shield adorned with an alchemical symbol of flames burning on water – a reference to the inscription on his standard, Sona di Ferro (I am Iron). Side 5: The Sun, a young Phoebus crowned with rays of light, is seated in Leo and bears up the solar star. Side 6: Venus, the morning and evening star; holds Libra and is seated on Taurus and looks at herself in a mirror.  Side 7: Mercury, dressed in a toga, is shown between Virgo and Gemini.  Side 8:  A young girl with windswept hair is the symbol of the Moon; which presides over childhood and over the winds and tides. She holds up the lunar star and touches a crab, the symbol of Cancer.

Saints and Stone-Cutters {No.18). In homage to the Guild of Stone-Cutters (Yajaira) responsible for this work, there is a depiction of the Christian martyrs; Claudius, Symphisian, Simplices, Castries and Nicotra Tus. All are considered as patron saints of their profession. They alternate with various disciples; the “excellent”, the “Tartar” (almond eyes and pug nose) and the “incredulous or infidel” (with turban and kaftan).

Animals with their Prey (No.17). Various animals are seen seizing their prey in their jaws: a lion, a wolf, a fox, a mythological gryphon, a boar, a dog, a cat and a bear. A branch under each head suggest associations between the animal and plant world.

Crafts (No.16). Various arts and crafts are depicted representing the manual (the smith and shoemaker, the intellectual (a notary) and the valuable (a goldsmith), along with indications of their status (in descending order large hats, smaller caps or nothing). Also represented are various peasant arts; the stone-cutter, the carpenter and the cereal and vegetable measurer.

Months of the Year (No.12). The astrological and Venetian year started with March (Mars). March: the windy spring season of Ram, symbolised by a man playing a double-belled horn. April and May: governed by Venus and surrounded by flowers. The first depicted by a small bull in her lap (zodiac sign of Taurus), the second depicted by holding a rose in her hand. June: has cherries. July: wheat is harvested. August: tubs for the grape harvest are prepared. September: Adorned like Bacchus with vines and bunches of grapes. October and November: damaged depictions of winnowing the grain and storage. December: slaughtering the pigs. January: a character by the fire, with three eyes and two noses; looking backwards and forwards to the old and new year. February: fish is grilled on an open grate, alluding to the zodiac sign of Pisces.

Fruits of the Year (No.10). Ptolemy’s Tetrabiblius, describes how the ascendance of planets at different times and seasons, influences the fertility and growth of plants and animals and the flow of water and wind. Solstices and equinoxes have a large influence on the weather; which in turn affect the fruits of the Earth. The capital shows baskets filled with fruits of the season; cherries, pears, cucumbers, peaches, pumpkins, melons, figs and grapes.

 

THE PINK COLUMNS OF THE DOGE’S PALACE.

On the west facing upper gallery, two pink columns stand out from the other white ones. Legend has it that the Doge stood between the pink columns during official ceremonies. Also, from here, death sentences were announced, (the pink suggesting the colour of blood).

Overlooking the waterfront side of the Piazzetta are two large columns, between which was a common place for the gallows. The condemned person could look across the Piazza to the clock­ tower, awaiting his demise. The bell-tower of San Marco, was sometimes used for punishments; whereby caged convicted criminals were hauled halfway up the structure.

 

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