Postcard from Genoa, Italy: A gossipy roll call of palaces

In a port city through which gold flowed from the New World to the Old, those who profited along the way built grand palaces befitting their aristocratic ascension. With grand staircases, ballrooms, art collections and landscaped courtyards in their mansions, the owners’ only need were opportunities to show off the evidence of their success to visiting dignitaries. In the spirit of fairness, the Republic of Genoa kept parchment scrolls listing palaces suitable for VIP guests. From these scrolls, known as rolli, a lottery was held to select hosts to keep peace among competitive neighbors.

Many of the surviving Palazzi dei Rolli of Genoa, UNESCO World Heritage Sites, still open their doors up for gawkers during May and October for what are known as Rolli Days. While we were not in the city then, several of these grand dames are open throughout the year as museums. Earlier, this blog took you to one of these, the Balbi Palace, and now will swing by several more.

Part of an aristocratic family but orphaned while young, Andrea Doria (1466-1560) looked seaward to advance himself. As a soldier of fortune, mercenary commander, perhaps even somewhat of a pirate, his naval skills afforded him great success. With Genoa in the middle of military tug-of-war maneuvers between France and the Holy Roman Empire, Doria switched sides numerous times, with his forces often a determining factor in the balance of power. At one point, he outfitted his own fleet of eight ships to fight the Ottoman Turks and seize fortunes from the plunder in the holds of Barbary pirate ships. In reward for his service, Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) named Doria the Grand Admiral of the imperial fleet and Prince of Melfi.

The prince of Genoa began construction of his Villa del Principe overlooking the Gulf of Genoa in 1529. While we were in Genoa, part of the Palazzo di Andrea Doria was closed off in preparation for an elegant evening dinner, although we did slip in for a peek at the long table set up for 100 or so guests. Private quarters for the princess were sealed off as well. The entire façade with its grand loggia was under scaffolding, and we felt sorry for whoever might have to bear the costs for such extensive renovation. No longer.

The Andrea Doria family of Genoa and the Pamphilj family merged several centuries ago, and this palace is held by the same family as the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj we toured earlier in Rome, one acquired through papal perks during the reign of Innocent X (1574-1655). Delving into the riches accumulated by families whose fortunes were tied to popes while in Rome, I failed completely to grasp the wealth of the contemporary owners of these two palaces in Rome and Genoa.

When Princess Orietta Pogson Doria Pamphilj (1922-2000) died, her fortune was estimated somewhere in the billion-dollar range. First, let me pause here to try to explain the use of the royal title of “princess.” Italy long ago banished royal titles, but, evidently in Europe, if one has enough money, royal society allows one to continue to employ discontinued terms.

Princess Orietta’s wealth was left to her two adopted children: Prince Jonathan Doria Pamphilj, who resides in regal quarters in the art-filled family palace in Rome, and Princess Gesine Doria Pamphilj, who counts an apartment in the tapestry-filled palace in Genoa among her residences. The immense bequest proved an irritant between the siblings, though, and the princess sued the prince to protect the future inheritance of her children against the children her gay brother sired via surrogate mothers. Ah, as complicated as papal politics of yore. One can read more in Vanity Fair, but, suffice it to say, renovating the palace in Genoa scarcely dents their bank accounts.

Palazzo Spinola originally was built in 1593 for members of the House of Grimaldi, one of the powerful families ruling Genoa whose name you might associate with the royal family of Monaco. Legend claims a crafty family member disguised himself and his soldiers as Franciscan friars to gain admission and then seize power of Monaco in 1297.

Among the prominent families owning and remodeling the palace through the centuries were the Doria and Spinola. During World War II, the third floor of the palace was destroyed. Members of the Spinola family donated it and all of its rich furnishings and art to the Italian government in 1958. The government rebuilt the top floor and rooftop garden, and the palace now serves as the Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola.

A trio of handsome palaces clustered together on Via Garibaldi are known collectively as Musei di Strada Nuova. The oldest of three, dating from 1565, also passed from the Grimaldi to the Doria family. Palazzo Doria Tursi takes its name from Carlo Doria (1576-1650), the Duke of Tursi, who inherited it in 1597. In addition to the art collection spilling over into it from Palazzo Bianco next door, the building serves as the City Hall of Genoa.

And Palazzo Tursi holds the Guanerius violin, left to the city of Genoa by one of its favorite famous sons, Niccolo Paganini (1782-1840). The composer and performer zoomed to rock-star-like status during his early years and was known for his flamboyant performances, his fingers flying with such rapidity he was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil.

David Garrett portraying Niccolo Paganini playing his “Caprice 24” in The Devil’s Violinist, 2015

A daughter of the Kingdom of Sardinia’s Ambassador to France, the Duchess of Galliera, Maria Brignole-Sale de Ferrari (1811-1888), spent much of her life in Paris. Her husband, Duke Rafaele de Ferrari (1803-1876), made much of his financial fortune in Paris as a cofounder of Credit Mobilier. Some say, according to the reliable source of Wikipedia, the wealthy duke died after accidentally locking himself inside one of his immense safes.

Comfortably ensconced in the family’s luxurious quarters in the Hotel Matignon on Rue de Varenne in Paris, their son Philipp (1815-1917) declined the title of Duke.Since his youth, Phillpp’s main interest was not in finance but in collecting stamps. His inheritance of about $5 million enabled the passionate philatelist to assemble one of the greatest collections of rare stamps in the world. His enthusiasm led some unscrupulous traders to con him with convincing forgeries, leading to the coining of “Ferrarities” to mean exceptionally good fakes. He employed fulltime curators for both his stamps and postcards. With childhood stamp albums still tucked away in a closet and a small assemblage of old postcards in a drawer by my desk, my own collecting obsessions have remained safely in check by a lack of equivalent funding.

Surrounded by the multitude of museums in Paris, the duchess was aware of what her hometown was lacking – a public art gallery. To remedy the situation, she bequeathed a pair of art-filled family palaces, unneeded by Philippe, to the city of Genoa. The elegant Palazzo Rosso, built in 1675, and Palazzo Blanco, 1711, round out the Musei di Strada Nuova. Reflecting the international connections of Genoa as a center of trade and commerce, the collection housed in these palaces is particularly rich in works by Flemish masters.

Based on this small sampling, to be in Genoa during Rolli Days when more of the palace doors swing open must be amazing.

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