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.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Church tour for the fleet of foot

No time to pause for even the slightest genuflection in this lightening-fast tour of more than a dozen churches in Rome.

You might think this blog has dragged you through every single church in Rome, but, no. One could spend a year visiting a church a day without exhausting that supply. Rome is divided into 339 parishes, and there are close to 70 basilicas within the city. Probably all are worth ducking into for a visit.

But, mercifully, our tour stops here.

On this whiplash final lap, am going to point out two major relics of the type upon which most American Catholics never lay their eyes. The reliquary above is said to contain “the first foot to be entered in the tomb of Christ,” that of Mary Magdalene enshrined in the Basilica di San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. And the other is a portion of the head of Saint John the Baptist housed in a chapel in the Basilica di San Silvestro in Capite.

I wonder whether anyone ever has developed a scavenger hunt for spying saintly parts tucked away in nooks and crannies in churches in Rome.

A shortcut to encountering a massive number of bones, if one is so inclined, is to seek out the Capuchin Museum and Crypt tucked under Santa Maria della Concezione. The church was commissioned in 1626 by Pope Urban VIII (to whom you were introduced during my “wild things” museum meltdown) in recognition of a relative who was a Capuchin friar, Cardinal Antonio Barberini. Cardinal Barberini had the remains of thousands of his Capuchin brethren transferred to the crypt, which provided monks with a creative side unusual materials for their assemblages.

The museum offers a rather dry history of the Capuchin order, somewhat interesting if not for the macabre magnetic pull of the crypt you know lies on the far side. I doubt much has changed there since Mark Twain’s visit long ago, so I will let him describe the interior:

There were six divisions in the apartment, and each division was ornamented with a style of decoration peculiar to itself – and these decorations were in every instance formed of human bones! There were shapely arches, built wholly of thigh bones; there were startling pyramids, built wholly of grinning skulls; there were quaint architectural structures of various kinds, built of shin bones and the bones of the arm; on the wall were elaborate frescoes, whose curving vines were made of knotted human vertebrae; whose delicate tendrils were made of sinews and tendons; whose flowers were formed of knee-caps and toe-nails. Every lasting portion of the human frame was represented in these intricate designs (they were by Michael Angelo, I think,) and there was a careful finish about the work, and an attention to details that betrayed the artist’s love of his labors as well as his schooled ability. I asked the good-natured monk who accompanied us, who did this? And he said, “We did it” – meaning himself and his brethren upstairs. I could see that the old friar took a high pride in his curious show. We made him talkative by exhibiting an interest we never betrayed to guides.

“Who were these people?”

“We – upstairs – Monks of the Capuchin order – my brethren.”

“How many departed monks were required to upholster these six parlors?”

“These are the bones of four thousand.”

“It took a long time to get enough?”

“Many, many centuries.”

“Their different parts are well separated – skulls in one room, legs in another, ribs in another – there would be stirring times here for a while if the last trump should blow. Some of the brethren might get hold of the wrong leg, in the confusion, and the wrong skull, and find themselves limping, and looking through eyes that were wider apart or closer together than they were used to. You can not tell any of these parties apart, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes, I know many of them.”

He put his finger on a skull. “This was Brother Anselmo – dead three hundred years – a good man.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

And, as this is a whiplash tour of churches, our friend Chris’ seconds-long forbidden video recording of the interior seems appropriate.

 

I asked the monk if all the brethren upstairs expected to be put in this place when they died. He answered quietly:

“We must all lie here at last.”

The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain, 1869

Catholicism remains a religion of many mysteries, even for someone who was raised as one, particularly during the years when mass still was said in Latin. Like, when near the end of the service, the priest would talk about Nabisco crackers: “Dominus vobiscum.” “The Lord be with you,” lost in translation between the priest’s lips and my ears.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Following Pink Floyd down the rabbit hole

He slipped on his headset and headed off through the swirling psychedelic lights. Egged on by the pied piper (“…at the Gate of Dawn”) playing in his ears, the Mister eagerly followed Alice traipsing down a rabbit hole of a time machine to his high school days.

Pink Floyd definitely was not on our minds when planning our daily agendas in Rome. In fact, if you had asked me, I could not have recalled when Pink Floyd was last on my mind.

But there we were. All comfortably fed and wined after a nice lunch. Standing at the door of MACRO, Museo D’Arte Contemporanea Roma. And there it was. The ticket counter for “The Pink Floyd Exhibition: Their Mortal Remains,” fresh from its debut at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

We considered walking away. The price tag for entry to the half-century retrospective was double that for most museums in Rome. And Pink Floyd? Fifty years of Pink Floyd?

But, then again, maybe we needed a vacation break from all those churches, ancient sculpture and Renaissance art. And other tourists.

Standing in the lobby, this exhibit certainly resonated loudly as a major escape. So we paid up and donned our headsets and started wandering back to sounds not heard since much more youthful days.

Five minutes in, even I was happy we had. I never had any Pink Floyd albums of my own and was surprised to be reminded of how much of their music was playing in the background of my world during the 1970s and 1980s.

The sound system was amazing; completely absorbing you; shifting as you wandered to different points in the exhibit at your own pace; fading in and out pleasantly, not abruptly. It left you free to move back and forth at will, and the Mister and I, while never standing more than 15 feet apart, structured two entirely different agendas.

We both watched portions of concerts, but the Mister parked himself in front of guitars, amps, mixers, and soundboards, growing increasingly more complex through the years the band played. I assume he was listening to soundtracks from albums on which they were used.

On the other hand, I was drawn to the stories. Interviews about Syd Barrett’s mental illness leading to his expulsion from the band in 1968; about songwriting; about album design; about set design for concerts. All were fascinating.

We stayed in the time machine for about three hours and easily could have slowed our pace. So, quick. Hop on a plane to Rome. You have until May 20th to catch the exhibit there.

Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time. Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines. Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way. The time is gone, the song is over, thought I’d something more to say.

“Time”/”Breathe,” Roger Waters, Dark Side of the Moon, 1973