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: When you start zooming in on the ‘wild things’

We stayed in Rome 30 days and 30 nights. A church a day. A museum a day. We never came close to exhausting them. But it really hit me on a day toward the end. Temporarily, I was museumed-out. And you probably are as well because I have been dragging you through all of them.

The major symptom of this over-exposure was focusing on bizarre details like an adolescent, and I was stricken with this illness almost immediately upon entering the stunning Palazzo Barberini, the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. It was Lorenzo Lotto’s fault. Right there at the bottom of his “Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Alexandria” was an escapee from the “wild rumpus” of Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.”

I went downhill from there, as though viewing art through Max’s eyes. Or through the eyes of the bad-behaving putti in Poussin’s “Baccanale.” There was a cute little rooster perched under Jesus’ feet nailed to the cross. Those limbo-like babies awkwardly cradled in Saint Michael’s scales, and the devil’s head spilling out over the frame under his red slippers. The devil wears polka-dots? Were those seemingly anachronistic stretch white undies added to Saint Sebastian later?

Those are the strangest little pink-winged angels catching cupfuls of Jesus’ blood. Who would park Baby Jesus naked on the bare ground of the manger, without even a bed of hay, with everyone else around him was comfortably clothed? How low did I sink? I am sorry, Lippi, but that plump little man in your Madonna’s arms appears trying to and capable of choking her. And, Caravaggio, Holfernes appears to be bleeding red plastic straws as Judith beheads him.

Forgive me for this major lapse. Maturity returned. I recovered my sense of cultural appreciation by the time we stood in the grand salon under Pietro da Corona’s “Triumph of Divine Providence.” On our way out, a velvet rope prevented us from getting more than a glimpse of Borromini’s spectacular oval spiral, or helicoidal, staircase.

About the bees. You might have noticed images of a trio of bees appearing off and on in earlier posts of photos taken in Roman churches. The bees are the symbol of the Barberini family.

In 1623, Maffeo Barberini (1568-1644) emerged as the candidate selected by the conclave, taking the name of Pope Urban VIII. Customs of the times dictated a pope’s family needs a palatial presence in Rome, so Pope Urban VIII purchased a villa on the Quirinal Hill that had been owned by the Sforza family.

Incorporating the original villa into the design as one side of an H-shaped palace, architect Carlo Maderno (1556-1629) began work in 1627 with assistance from his nephew, Francesco Borromini (1559-1667). Barely two years into the makeover, Maderno died. Despite Borromini’s presence on the job, the pope commissioned a younger rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), as the lead architect for the project.

Some time during his two decades as pope, Urban VIII most have incurred the wrath of the future Pope Innocent X (1574-1655) of the Pamphilj family, whose palace we visited quite a few posts ago. Pope Innocent X confiscated the both the Palazzo Barberini and its artwork. The family feud must have reached a truce, with Innocent returning the palace to the Barberini family two years before his death.

The companion museum that is part of the National Gallery of Paintings with Palazzo Barberini is the Palazzo Corsini, also visited in an earlier post.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: Palace reflects vestiges of papal perks

It has never been easy to obtain first-class relics worthy of designing a gilded chapel around, but it certainly helped to have a pope in the family.

Among the prizes contained in reliquaries in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj are “the perfectly preserved remains,” according to the website, of Saint Theodora. We are not sure which Theodora, but this one, before final martyrdom I assume, purportedly was spared from a fiery end by flames that parted around her. Stretched out below the chapel altar are the remains of a saintly centurion who, prior to his conversion and martyrdom, served as an imperial guard standing by during the crucifixion of Christ.

The basic structural bones of Palazzo Doria Pamphilj date from 1435, but the Pamphilj family undertook major remodeling during the second half of the 17th century. Later redo’s Rococo-ed things up a bit.

The Doria portion of the family originally was from Genoa, while the Pamphilj branch had roots in Gubbio. Both powerful families, but the glory years of consolidating prime property and accumulating wealth and art in Rome followed the papal inauguration of Giovanni Battista Pamphilj in 1644 as Innocent X (1574-1655). Papal perks awarded to friends and family were chief causes of stormy Vatican politics for centuries.

Pope Innocent X lived in office for more than a decade, a decade during which he presided over the 1650 Jubilee Celebration. Traditionally during Jubilee years of the church, currently held every 25 years:

families were expected to find their absent family members, the Hebrew slaves were to be set free, debts were to be settled and illegally owned land had to be returned to its owners.

“The Jubilee Year,” www.vatican.com

In honor of the Jubilee, Pope Innocent X added opulence to St. Peter’s and, for the public, made Piazza Navona the incredible landmark it remains today. He moved an immense Egyptian red granite obelisk of Domitan there and commissioned artists of the caliber of Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) to add ornate Baroque fountains.

But wait, was that project for the public good or for the pleasure of the Pamphilj family whose palazzo happened to be located there? The family who would flood the plaza to float boats for elaborate summertime parties? No matter now, it is a stunning, if ridiculously overcrowded, public space.

Among the major paintings included in the palazzo’s collection is a portrait of Innocent X by Diego Velazquez (1599-1660). Some critics regard this portrait as one of the finest in the world; artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) obsessively turned to reproductions of the painting as the basis for his two-decade series of “screaming popes.”