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Luisella Romeo
Article by Luisella Romeo

The prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice: how and who designed them and who escaped

The prisons of the Doge’s Palace are a major highlight when visiting this museum in Venice. Unlike what you may think, the Doge’s Palace was not just the residence of the State leader of Venice,
but was also the administrative and judicial centre of a State, now extinguished, till 1797. As a matter of fact, Venetians addressed the building as the “palazzo”, not even stressing the presence of the Doge.
Prisons were present from the very start in this building, connected to the courtrooms and to all magistrates’ offices connected to justice. What we can see nowadays when visiting the Doge’s Palace are cells of the 16th century and 17th century, some used till a hundred years ago.

The façade of the New Prisons along the Riva degli Schiavoni in Venice, 17th century.
Details of the New Prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice: a lion’s head, 17th century

The “pozzi” and the “piombi” of the Doge’s Palace in Venice and the New Prisons: where they are

Some cells are located in the main building of the Doge’s Palace and were addressed as “pozzi” (“wells” on the ground floor) and “piombi” (“lead chambers” under the lead roof). Some other cells, the so-called New Prisons, stand across the canal Canonica and you can reach them across the famous Bridge of Sighs or, in the past, from the embankment Riva degli Schiavoni, too.

Starting in the 1200s… the history of the prisons of the Doge’s Palace in a few steps

Documents of the late 1200s mention cells, each with their own name. There was the one of the Donne (women), the one called Vulcano and then Schiava, Galeota, Fresca Zoia and many more. Crowded, unhealthy, dark, but for some oil lamps: punishment was meant as a revenge on the ones accused of a crime.

An example of locks in the New Prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, 17th century

The “pozzi” (wells)

Diseases and deaths occurred and around the year 1540 the Court Council of the Ten took the decision to design different prisons, the one I mentioned before, called the “pozzi”. Cruelty however can still be envisaged in these prisons. The same court agreed and described them as “…sepolture d’huomini” (“burials of human beings”). But they responded to some criteria of efficiency. Not to mention that guards would control a corridor running all around the perimeter.

The corridor for the guards in the New Prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, 17th century
The “cella oscura”, the “dark cell” in the New Prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, 17th century

The “piombi” (lead chambers)

On the very last floor, under the lead roof, the “piombi” were instead much better. Sure, it was cold in the winter, scorching hot in the summer, but at least day light and no humidity. The “piombi” were in fact reserved for the ones that had not committed serious crimes.

The New Prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice

By the end of the 1500s a new prison across the canal was finished. An amazing construction. A very elegant façade in limestone from the Istrian peninsula, decorative elements such as lions’ heads and heavy metal bars.

Iron grate at the window in the New Prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice

This new construction responded to different criteria: humane conditions of life, which means large size, light, fresh air. A central courtyard for the daylight. A chapel, too, for religious events,

including marriages, baptism and a space of prayer for the ones who were going to be sentenced to death. But especially: just a prison, isolated and solid.

Beds and wooden planks and floor in the New Prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice

Escaping from the prisons in the Doge’s Palace: Giacomo Casanova (and not just)

The “piombi” became very famous because of Giacomo Casanova’s escape in 1756. In his memoirs, Casanova dedicates a famous chapter regarding his adventure. Written in French, the Histoire de ma fuite des prisons de la République de Venise qu’on appelle les Plombs well describes what happened. From the portrait of the guard Lorenzo Basadonna till the psychological conditions of a prisoner, or the rocambolesque attempts to escape, always mixing in the narration some truth and some invention. Planning to escape for Casanova meant to think of bribing the guard, involve more prisoners, hide tools to dig holes in the floor or to break the ceiling apart, reach the roof, enter courtrooms and offices, sneak in down the Golden Staircase, unlock doors, catch a gondola… eventually writing:
“State Inquisitors do their job to keep in prison the guilty ones; but the guilty ones do their job in attempting, as much as possible, to escape.”
Not to detract interest from Casanova’s famous report, let’s admit the “scampi” (“escapes”) were quite frequent. You could choose to escape alone or in a group, arranging your escape from within or with someone outside, breaking walls, gates, iron grates, starting a fire, digging in the floor or the ceiling, with the help of a boat outside, swimming away, assaulting the guards and getting the keys or bribing them so they would be inattentive or sleepy at the right moment. It was
taken for granted, people would try and succeed to escape.

A piece of graffiti mentioning the names of two prisoners who escaped from the New Prisons in the Doge’s Palace in Venice

The architects of the prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice

While the old prisons, the pozzi and the piombi, were likely designed by official masons responding to the requests of the State Inquisitors and the Council of the Ten, the new prisons were constructed in 1591 by Antonio da Ponte. Da Ponte had been in charge of the reconstruction of the Major Council and the Scrutiny Halls of the Doge’s palace after the fire in 1577. In 1591 when his project for the New Prisons was proposed, he had just finished building the Rialto bridge.

The arcade under the New Prisons: it shows continuation with the architecture of the Doge’s Palace in Venice

But Antonio da Ponte’s project was not the only one that got accepted by the Council of the Ten. Another project was considered very good and in fact the Council of the Ten decided the new prisons had to be built keeping in mind the good ideas from both projects. But who was this other architect? His name was Zaccaria Briani and he was not an architect, but a prisoner. Accused of homicide, Briani had already spent twenty-two years in the prisons of the Doge’s Palace.

Pieces of graffiti by prisoners in the New Prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, 18th century
Pieces of graffiti by prisoners in the New Prisons of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, 18th century

“Bellezza, comodità e sicurtà” (“beauty, comfort and security”) were the criteria which brought these two projects to get the commission. In exchange for his expertise, Briani was finally given three years to spend in freedom with the only requirement he would remain at disposal as “his person and memories would serve the construction of such an important and necessary building.”

Well, I guess it means that cooperating to build a beautiful, comfortable and secure prison can set you free.

Luisella Romeo

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