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 Nervi, Genoa, Italy: Two modern art museums near the seaside

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

With one wall depicting sweets and attention lavished upon a good child and another the unpleasantness awaiting a naughty boy, Antonio Rubino (1880-1964) transformed a child’s room into illustrations seemingly plucked from the pages of a collection of nursery rhymes. The 1921 bedroom with a “City of Dreams” is but one of the unusual galleries encountered in Wolfsoniana, located in the seaside suburb of Genoa, Nervi. Here, among other things, we learned the Battle of Flowers is not unique to San Antonio; Ventimiglia is known for its Battaglia di Fiori.

The collection of art dating from 1880-1945 in this new museum reflects the interests of Miami-born Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. He opened the first museum showcasing his passions in 1995 in the Art Deco District in Miami Beach. As Wolfson became increasingly attached to Genoa, he moved some of his immense personal collections there. He considers himself, according to the Wolfson Collection website:

…a conservationist because of my desire to discover, but not possess. The challenge is to save endangered objects that are ignored or not held in admiration by others….

Before I decide to buy an object I think whether it belongs to the narrative or not. Truth and beauty don’t interest me particularly. I am interested in the language of objects….

It is the goal of my collection: “to make people think.”

…but I’m not interested in what you think: I shall simply be happy to have stimulated the birth of an idea within you, of a souvenir, a dream.

Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

Nearby in the 15th-century Villa Saluzzo Serra, the Galleria d’Arte Moderna focuses on artwork from the beginning of the 19th century to contemporary. The base of the museum’s holdings came from Prince Oddone (1846-1866) of Savoy’s collection. The avid collector, a son of King Vittorio Emanuele II (1820-1878), was sickly and died at the young age of 19. The City of Genoa actively acquired art between 1912 and 1950 from the Venice Bienniale and Rome Quadriennale exhibitions, and some of Wolfsoniana’s overflow is on display in the villa as well.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Cleaning out remaining museum photos

Three months ago this blog took you to MACRO, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, to view the “mortal remains” of Pink Floyd, but totally neglected to invite you into the men’s room. The long bank of illuminated wash basins offering multiple reflections of your cleanliness habits in both the men’s and women’s bagni are must-stop spots in the museum housed in a former Peroni Brewery.

Apologies. The strange introductory photo is offered as a distraction because this grouping of museums makes no sense, aside from their location outside of the main tourist grid.

As this begins with the contemporary art scene, we might as well hop over to MAXXI, the National Museum of 21st Century Arts. Even were the museum devoid of art, people would make the pilgrimage to MAXXI to view the striking design of the late Iraqi-born British architect, Zaha Hadid.

Following Hadid’s 2016 death, Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times wrote:

She was not just a rock star and a designer of spectacles. She also liberated architectural geometry, giving it a whole new expressive identity. Geometry became, in her hands, a vehicle for unprecedented and eye-popping new spaces but also for emotional ambiguity. Her buildings elevated uncertainty to an art, conveyed in the odd ways one entered and moved through those buildings and in the questions her structures raised about how they were supported.

The other trio of museums belong together, as they are all located within the 33-acre park of Villa Torlonia. The property originally was a farm and vineyards owned by the Pamphilj family, whose palace we visited earlier.

At the end of the 18th century, a banker to the Vatican, Giovanni Torlonia (1755-1825), transformed the former farm into a luxurious garden-like setting for his newly acquired mansion. The elegant Casino Nobile was renowned for lavish parties thrown by the Torlonia family. The palatial residence attracted the attention of Benito Mussolini (1883-1945), who purportedly paid the princely sum of $1 per year to acquire it for his residence from 1925 to 1943.

With parties often occupying the main villa, princes in the Torlonia family needed a villa to escape the throngs. An underground passageway connected the Casino Nobile to the smaller Casino dei Principi, or House of the Princes, guarded by a stately pair of sphinxes.

The third of the Villa Torlonia Museums is the Casina delle Civette, or House of the Owls, possibly because of the owls depicted in the stained glass above the entrance. Originally designed to resemble a rustic Swiss chalet, later architectural alterations added an assemblage of small balconies and turrets, more of a petite medieval hamlet look.

The entire Villa Torlonia compound was purchased by the city of Rome in 1978, which subsequently restored numerous of its buildings and opened the grounds as a public park.