Imprisonment – The Secret Itineraries Tour of The Doge’s Palace, Venice, Part One

It turns out I have a few things in common with Casanova.

We both lived in Venice a long time ago (he of course really did, and it’s another story, but I am convinced in a previous life I was a Venetian). We both travelled extensively throughout Europe, with little thought for anything beyond the pleasures of this life. We share a passion for writing about our lives, he extravagantly, flamboyantly so about his various conquests, me with a tour guide’s must-have flair for exaggeration and how to spin a good yarn.

Separated At Birth? Hmmm... Myself and Casanova (left to right)

Separated At Birth? Hmmm… Myself and Casanova (left to right)

We also share a history of disastrous encounters with the ‘weaker’ sex, yet through our writing tried to reflect openly and honestly on our own personal weaknesses.

In this, the first of two pieces – the second will follow at the end of my three week stay in Venice – I follow in the footsteps of Casanova, up, up, up into the notorious Leads, the prisons of Venice on the Secret Itinerary Tour of The Doge’s Palace.

Part One: Imprisonment

“I was dressing myself in an absent minded manner, neither hurrying myself nor the reverse. I made my toilette, shaved myself and combed my hair; putting on mechanically a laced shirt and my holiday suit without saying a word…”

Then suddenly I am late. I grab my hat and scarf to complete the ‘outfit’ and dash out of the door. I know I can cover the quarter of a mile or so from my studio in Calle Noris to The Duke’s Palace where I must be in twelve minutes easily enough. The distance is not the problem. The navigation is. This is Venice. Please for once, let me not get lost.

These Crowds Are Terrible...

These Crowds Are Terrible…

Taking only calle (tiny Venetian streets) of which I am certain, with a minute to spare I am in the Palace courtyard, flashing my pre-purchased ticket as I run past the guards. My 9.55 a.m tour of the ‘Secret Itineraries’ of probably my favourite building in Europe is about to start. I join a group of twenty or so, cold looking February tourists, winter jackets all adorned with matching round red stickers, granting us unique access. We are ready.

“In the course of time, the captain of the men-at-arms came to tell me that he is under orders to take me under the Leads.”

The ‘Leads’ is the name Venetians used to call the prison cells chiselled into the rafters of the Duke’s Palace. High above the famous Bridge of Sighs, which connects the Palace, and the law courts with the ‘modern’ prisons at water, and hence also, rat level, these were the ‘posh’ cells. Reserved for nobles and people who could afford them, they take their name from the lead used in the roof above. Scorching in the summer and freezing in winter, they, and within them, the famous cell of Casanova, are the highlight of the Secret Itinerary Tour onto which I am booked this morning.

'Ciao Bella!' Casanova Still Alive?

‘Ciao Bella!’ Casanova Still Alive?

Our guide explains the politics of the Serenissima – most Serene, the name Venice’s 1000 year Republic took for itself – all geared around serving short terms, few possibilities for re-election and extremely high salaries in order to avoid corruption. Many of our select few mutter; ‘we should do that today’, as we shuffle off.

…”where sat an individual in the dress of a noble, who, after looking fixedly at me said. ‘E quello, mettetelo in deposito”.

My ‘over-sized’ bag duly in ‘deposit’ under lock and key I am permitted to rejoin the group.

” We made our way over to the Warden of the Leads, who stood by with an enormous bunch of keys… made me climb the two short flights of stairs, at the top of which followed a passage and then another gallery at the end of which he opened a door…”

The room of torture. The Venetians had a unique philosophy on torture; it’s all in the mind. Well, that and a rope. There has to be some pain after all. We enter a room laid out virtually as a theatre with a public gallery. A single rope hangs from the ceiling one end dangling an inch above what in this sinister setting acts as a stage. No knives, pincers or hot rods (no fire places allowed in this timber tinderbox) line the walls.

Colonel Mustard, With The Rope in The Torture Chamber?

Colonel Mustard, With The Rope in The Torture Chamber?

The records show that by using only a rope, torturing solely at night in virtual darkness, hiring three innocents to stand at the back and scream and with only the breaking of very few bones, every single victim ‘confessed’ within no more than ten minutes. A doctor was present to make sure suspects no one accidentally died.

We leave and are lead through into the cell area. We have reached the notorious ‘Leads’.

“Signing me to enter, which I did by bending double (Casanova was a giant of his time at 195cm tall), he shut me up… it (the cell) formed three quarters of a square of twelve feet. The fourth quarter was a kind of recess, which would have held a bed, but there was neither bed, nor table, nor chair, nor any furniture whatever, except a bucket – the use of which may be guessed”.

This cell into which in 1765 Casanova was first escorted was in the area called ‘Hell’ by the prisoners, our guide explains. Minus temperatures in winter and as much as 45 degrees Celsius in summer, there were no windows and no toilets, only the infamous bucket.

£80 a Night Doesn't Get You Much In Venice...

£80 a Night Doesn’t Get You Much In Venice…

Casanova, like all Venetian prisoners was kept almost constantly in total darkness and in another Venetian case of mind games, also without any inkling as to his crime and worse; the length of time he was due to serve. He had though, time to think.

“For in the most scrupulous examination of my conduct I could find no crimes. I was it was true a profligater, a gambler, a bold talker a man who thought of little but enjoying this present life, but in all that there was no offence against the state.”

Our tour has yet more steps to climb. However after this final staircase we can reach no higher. We are quite literally standing on top of the ‘the World’s largest painting’; Tintoretto’s Paradiso’, one side of it anyway. It graces the ceiling of the Major Council below our feet. Beams, white from being insect and virtually fire-proofed by the ingenious Venetians who in 1577 soaked them for months in their salty lagoon, stretch out for 53 suspended, unsupported metres in front of us. In July it gets so hot up here, it’s beyond even the reach of the Secret Itineraries we are told.

A Very Different 'Paradise' Just Above...

A Very Different ‘Paradise’ Just Above…

Once upon a time below…

“… for the first time in my life, at the age of thirty, I called philosophy to my assistance… and he who studies himself carefully will find only weakness…”

Up here, alone, often in darkness, with no real idea of what lay ahead, Giacomo Casanova ‘became a philosopher’. With only his gaoler Lorenzo for company he even wished himself in Hell, though he confessed to not believing in it, for no other reason than ‘the company’. Solitude will do that to you. He laments his fellow men, most of whom he says have never really had the time nor need to think about themselves. The results when we do, are often not pleasant. He likens this isolation to a poison even.

“… for the poison to take effect he must be isolated, put under the Leads and deprived of all other employments”.

Before descending to the second part of the tour, it is impossible not to reflect upon what it must have been like here, locked up, time to think. ‘Keep busy’, is always the advice in times of distress or great heart-ache. I, for not the first time that morning I find myself relating to Casanova, though our ‘prisons’ may be very different.

“I seriously formed the plan of forcibly escaping… I began to rack my brain to find a way of carrying the idea into execution and I conceived a hundred schemes, each bolder than the other, but a new plan always made me give up the one I was on the point of accepting.”

The next room we enter, was once called ‘Paradise’ we are told; there are windows and some light. For me, as it did for Casanova when he was moved here, that sounds like hope.

Discovering 'Paradise' Might Not Be All It Was Cracked Up To Be

Discovering ‘Paradise’ Might Not Be All It Was Cracked Up To Be

A step up from ‘Hell’ at least. However, still for each of us in own separate ways held captive by our past, an improvement in our circumstances would more than anything require great patience. Not in either of our characters.

The man who has sufficient power over himself to wait until his nature has recovered its even balance is the truly wise man, but such beings are seldom met with – Giacomo Casanova

The Secret Itineraries Tour of the Doge’s Palace, can be booked online or by phone. You can also be lucky and find tickets on the day. The ticket allows you to skip the line and visit the rest of this remarkable Palace after the tour ends.

~ by 2ndcupoftea on March 2, 2013.

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