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 Ravenna, Italy: A sleeping beauty awakened

Honorius (384-423) was only ten years old when his father died. Sad fact on its own, but his father was Theodosius the Great (347-395), Emperor of the Roman Empire. With big shoes to fill, he needed to grow up quickly. The rule of the empire was divided, with his older brother reigning over the eastern half and Honorius presiding over the western half.

Pesky barbarians kept trying to wrest control of his empire, and Honorius decided to move his capital to Ravenna in 402. The new capital was viewed as easy to defend, surrounded by fortifications built by earlier emperors and marshland. While the capital could be defended, its location left much of the rest of Italy vulnerable.

In 408, the Roman Senate bought their way out of danger by paying the Visigoths 4,000 pounds of gold to leave Italy alone. But having run through that the Goths returned to sack Rome itself in 410. Britain and much of the rest of the Roman Empire were left without Roman protection. And, although Rome was regained in 414, Honorius is remembered for the defeats suffered and the unraveling of the empire during his reign.

Perhaps tired of being cold, the Goths returned with a vengeance under the leadership of the King of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric the Great (454-526). Theodoric made Ravenna the base for his new Arian kingdom, welcoming more than 200,000 of his followers to settle in Italy. While this was bad for much of Italy, Ravenna flourished under the attention.

Two decades after Theodoric’s death, Justinian I (483-565), the Byzantine Emperor, was able to wrest control of Ravenna and much of Italy from the Ostrogoths. Ravenna continued to benefit from royal attention.

After the 8th century, Ravenna was no longer a star. This lack of attention and imperialistic investment turned her into somewhat of a sleeping beauty, extremely beneficial for preserving the city’s early Christian monuments. Eight of its 5th and 6th century buildings are recognized on UNESCO’s World Heritage List as demonstrating “great artistic skill, including a wonderful blend of Graeco-Roman tradition, Christian iconography and oriental and Western styles.”

The mosaics inside these monuments are Ravenna’s main attractions, but we are going to ease into those. This first postcard from Ravenna is simply a random combination of photos of the city to whet your appetite.

Threw in a little bit of food from lunch to make you hungrier for Ravenna. We stumbled across a nice restaurant with street-side seating, La Gardela. As ridiculous as this sounds, the zucchini fries alone were worth the train ride from Bologna.

Okay, it’s not fair to totally hold out on the mosaics. Peek if you must at this UNESCO preview.

Postcard from Modena, Italy: Watch out for the devil in the architectural details

…monstrous beings of every kind, sinful creatures threatening the spiritual path of humankind…. Images emphasize the symbolic meaning of the church door, which separates the believers gathered inside, from those standing outside, who may fall prey to the Devil.”

UNESCO Guide to Visiting the Cathedral of Modena

Fortunately, if one does not want to pass through the doorway with the most monsters, the Cathedral dominating two plazas in Modena has numerous entrances with other lessons. Sculptural reliefs clustered around and above the doors teach the Biblical lesson of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden; the story of the city’s patron saint, Saint Geminiani, who died shortly before the year 400 and whose remains are housed in the crypt; seasonal harvests; and Arthurian legends.

Many of these were the work of sculptor Wiligemo, who worked simultaneously with the architect Lanfranco – “the choice of architect had been miraculously inspired by God.” Construction of the Romanesque Cathedral began in 1099, and it was consecrated in 1184. UNESCO describes the result as:

a magnificent example of Romanesque Art which astonished society at the time and still fills us with wonder….

As construction work took more than a century, some interior sculptural work was designed and completed by Campionesi masters.

The soaring Cathedral and the Ghirlandina Tower on its side are among the beautiful buildings in Modena compelling one to linger, meandering its relatively tourist-free streets and plazas.