The nominal head of Venice, the doge, needed a sumptuous palace to demonstrate the extent of his power, and this palace is indeed magnificent and truly extraordinary in its lavish architecture and decoration.
The very frontage (loggia) is both politically and aesthetically important. Gutted by fire in 1577, Venice turned down the offer from the famous architect Palladio to rebuild it, but commissioned Antonio da Ponte to create this Istrian stoned facade. Dearth sentences were read from between the ninth and tenth columns from the left, so it served a solemn purpose too.
The main courtyard offers a view of St Mark's Basilica, The ever-present gondola The baggage storage area is off this, located in the Poggi, or wells, the cells where prisoners would shiver below water-level.
Several of the staircases are worth mention - moving around the palace is as impressive as the rooms. Inside is the Scala d'Oro, the golden staircase. Completed in 1559, it uses 24 carat gold leave to decorate frescoes lining the route for guests up to the second floor. Outside, the huge so-called Giant's Staircase looms impressively over the courtyard. Flanked by statues of Apollo and Neptune, and adorned by recently restored cherubim, it is sadly not open for visitors to climb, only to marvel at.
The largest state room in Europe is located here, built, as everything else is in Venice, on stilts sunk into the mud. It's an extraordinary feat of engineering. The Sala del Maggior Consiglio dates from 1419, and functions as a grand council room with the doge's throne raised on a dias, and a phenomenal range of paintings by such masters as Tintoretto and Veronese, painting over 500 famous Venetians into the backdrop 'Paradise' painting.
The symbol of Venice is the lion; lions appear all over the palace, including eighteen watching over the doge in the Sala degli Stucchi. One less decorative use of the lion's head was as a postbox for people to inform on those breaking the law. Most of these have now been moved, but a couple are left for tourists.
As you head to the last section, the cold, flood-prone prison cells, you first pass over the Bridge of Sighs. Romantically named in the idea that prisoners sighed as they glimpsed the freedom of the outside world for the last time, you realise from inside that this was scarcely possible. The bridge has been replicated, in both Oxford and Cambridge as well as elsewhere, and lives on as its own myth.
If you have time, and money, it is well worth taking the secret passages tour. Only this way will you get to wander through all the hidden parts of the palace, most especially, its network of secret staircases and rooms connecting its prisons and judicial chambers.
Perhaps the most famous prisoner to have been held here was Casanova. His cell is in an area known as 'I Piombi', the leads, after the lead tiles on the roof. Hidden up in the attic of the palace, these rooms would become horrendously hot in summer. Casanova could not face completing his stay, and executed a daring escape.
A torture chamber, where prisoners were interrogated whilst strung from the ceiling, includes small cells to house those awaiting their turn; after hearing how people suffered, many would simply confess.
There are lots of steps in the palace, so it would not be an easy visit for anyone with accessibility issues. You need several hours to do it justice. A route is set through the palace, finishing through the Poggi. This means that you can't easily backtrack to look at different areas, and it would be hard to get out of the route early. Booking tickets for tours or entry slots in advance helps to speed up the process.