Genoa – Private Splendour with Public Purpose

Peter Morrell goes to this historic port city to see the sumptuous Palazzi dei Rolli, the Rolli Palaces, and to learn about their history

Teatro Carlo Felice

Teatro Carlo Felice

Piazza de Ferrari

Piazza de Ferrari

The House of Christopher Columbus

The House of Christopher Columbus

The Doge's Palace 1

The Doge's Palace

Lion outside San Lorenzo Cathedral

Lion outside San Lorenzo Cathedral

Genoese Street Lamp

Genoese Street Lamp

Fruit and Vegetable Shop in the Caruggi

Fruit and Vegetable Shop in the Caruggi

Barber's Shop in the Caruggi

Barber's Shop in the Caruggi

Romulus and Remus in the Palazzo Rosso

Romulus and Remus in the Palazzo Rosso

The first floor garden between the Palazzo Bianco and the Palazzo Tursi

The first floor garden between the Palazzo Bianco and the Palazzo Tursi

Colonnades in Palazzo Tursi

Colonnades in Palazzo Tursi

Ceiling Detail in Via Garibaldi 12

Ceiling Detail in Via Garibaldi 12

The Gilded Room - Palazzo Tobia Pallavicino

The Gilded Room - Palazzo Tobia Pallavicino

Madonna and Child - Palazzo Tobia Pallavicino

Madonna and Child - Palazzo Tobia Pallavicino

The Street to Palazzo della Meridiana

The Street to Palazzo della Meridiana

Ceiling in Palazzo della Meridiana

Ceiling in Palazzo della Meridiana

St George slaying the Dragon - Door Frieze

St George slaying the Dragon - Door Frieze

Room in the Palazzo Spinola

Room in the Palazzo Spinola

Genoa’s nature harbour proved to be its fortune. A safe haven to moor both ships carrying freight and military vessels brought merchants, moneymen and the aristocracy flocking to the city. And with them came wealth and aspiration in the form of palaces and works of art.

History of Le Strade Nuove and the Palazzi dei Rolli

In the late 16th century Genoa was a city state and started what was probably the world’s first urban planning project, Le Strade Nuove or New Streets. Thoroughfares were created and plots of land allocated for the rich and successful to build their palaces. Genoa was becoming a city of prestige and started to attract a stream of equally prestigious visitors; the problem was they needed somewhere to stay.

The obvious answer was the sumptuous palaces, so the Palazzi dei Rolli or Rolli system was born. Rolli means list and in 1576 the palaces were graded to match the relative importance of the visiting guests. Only three palaces made the top grade and it was in these that the Popes, Emperors and Kings stayed.

Two or three weekends a year in Genoa are declared Rolli days and give the public access to these buildings, which have recently been subject to extensive renovation. In 2006 eighty of the palaces applied for UNESCO listing and of these 42 palaces were successful; so there is a lot of world-class architecture to see.

I went to the city recently on a Rolli weekend, not just to see the palaces but to soak up the atmosphere of the Caruggi, the maze of small streets that tumble down from the Strade Nuove to the Porto Vecchio, the old port.

My base was the Hotel Metropoli, just a few steps from Via Garibaldi, the most lavish of all the New Streets. A direct 10:00am flight from London Gatwick gave me plenty of time to get to the centre of Genoa by lunchtime. With a couple of hours to spare before meeting a guide who would show me the Caruggi I set out with a camera to try and catch some cultural reference points.

Pleasant Cultural Surprises

In Genoa you only have to walk a few paces to find something of interest. The first was the Teatro Carlo Felice, the opera house and venue for all the performing arts in the city. Giuseppe Verdi spent winters in Genoa for 40 years, so it was no surprise to hear one of his airas drifting into the street from a rehearsal room.  The opera house stands in one corner of the Piazza de Ferrari, a square with an impressive fountain and flanked by the lavish facades of both public and private buildings.

At the far side of the Piazza, walking through an arched arcade, I stumbled upon a reconstruction of the house occupied by Genoa’s most famous son, Christopher Columbus. Retracing my steps I wanted to see Genoa’s cathedral San Lorenzo and by accident happened upon the Doge’s Palace. This really was serendipity city.

The Caruggi

Cultural quota already exceeded I met my guide for the afternoon, who would reveal the secrets of the Caruggi. In and around the area are 21 historic shops and to frame the experience we would visit some of them as part of the tour. From the old-fashioned gentleman’s outfitters, where I got a lesson in tying a bow tie, to the coffee house and confectionary shop where Verdi indulged his appetites, it was a captivating experience.

But the real treasure trove in the little alleys and squares were the specialist food shops. It’s not difficult to see why the cuisine of Italy has such a good reputation. Bright eyed fish and three or four different type of squid in one shop, impossibly plump and colourful fruit and vegetables in another and even a butcher selling only tripe. Lifestyle wise there were Entonicas, bars where you can both drink and buy wine and an almost surreal art deco barbers. And at the end of the tour a special thanks to my charming guide Anna who, as well as having impeccable English, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Genoa. She was also fortunately my guide for the following day.

The Palaces and their Treasures

My next day was spent in awe looking at some of the Rolli Palaces. I started in the famed Via Garibaldi, which even on an early Saturday morning was being enlivened with elegantly dressed Genoese attending weddings in the Palazzo Tursi, now the City Hall.

I followed the Musei di Strada Nuova route, a walking tour that included three of the most important Palazzi. The first was the Palazzo Rosso, the Red Palace. The property was owned by the Brignole Sale family until it was bequeathed to the city in 1871. It is now an art gallery and there are paintings and sculptures by artists who were sponsored by the Palace owners. The noblemen were genuine connoisseurs of art and, for example, recognised the talents of a very young Van Dyck, who painted many works in Genoa.

Across the Via Garibaldi is the Palazzo Bianco another palace given to the city and containing paintings equally as worthy as the Palazzo Rosso. There are works from the 12th to the 18th century featuring Rubens, Van Dyck, Caravaggio and numerous examples of paintings by Genoese artists.

A walk through a first floor garden brought me to the Palazzo Tursi, where earlier in the day I had seen the blushing brides and cheering Genoese wedding guests. Matrimonials over and the crowds gone it was possible to see one of the striking aspects of Palazzo architecture, an open inner courtyard bounded by two storeys of colonnades, bringing the outdoors inside. Slipping through a door on the upper level I was suddenly in an elaborate room face to face with a glass case displaying one of Paganini’s violins; an unexpected treat.

Emerging through the gateway of Palazzo Tursi into the Via Garibaldi the street still had more gems to reveal. Number 12 is now an upmarket interior design showroom and the display of their wares is enhanced by the elegant rooms with very precise detailing, particularly on the ceilings.

A few doors down the street was my favourite Palazzo. The Tobia Pallavicino, now the seat of the Chamber of Commerce. The Gilded Gallery is a room of almost indescribable splendour, an exuberant riot of rococo shapes, mirrors, frescos and friezes. It is one of the pinnacles of expression by designer Lorenzo de Ferrari.

Staying on the first floor I visited the far more restrained reception room and chapel. Here a trompe l’oeil background of classic columns sets off a statue of the Vergine col Bambino, the Madonna and Child.

A View from the Top

It was time to go up in the world, but physically rather that socially. Genoa is backed by very steep cliffs and there are a number of public lifts that take you skyward. After getting to the top, using the Ascensore Portello Castelletto, the whole of Genoa was spread before me. The old port, now filled with cruise ships, the cathedral, the opera house with its new extension and the Le Strade Nuove all making chaotic sense.

A wander down a steep cobbled street found me at the Palazzo della Meridiana, a remarkably stylish building that can now be hired as a wedding venue or to hold exhibitions. The Grand Salon has an exquisitely moulded and painted ceiling and there is a delightful terrace outside shaded by fruit trees.

Leaving this Palazzo I headed off to the Galleria Nazionale di Palazzo Spinola di Pellicceria. On the way I was fascinated by friezes over the doors of many buildings, a popular theme is St George slaying the Dragon. Genoa’s flag is the Cross of St George and when English ships flew this flag in the Mediterranean they came under the protection of the Genoese navy. This privilege was granted only after a suitable annual fee had been paid by the British King to the Doge.

In the Palazzo Spinola a graphic of a tree plots the ownership of this building from its construction by the Grimaldi family in 1593 to its donation to the Italian State by the Marquis Spinola in 1958. Here are portraits of the Genoese aristocracy painted by Rubens and Van Dyck as well as many other works of art. An interesting contrast to the lavishly decorated rooms is a well-preserved kitchen constructed between the main floors of the building.

There are many other Palazzi to visit, some still in private ownership, which are only open on the special Rolli days but I had seen enough to convince me of the riches that the Palazzi can offer the visitor.

The Ideal City Break

This unique collection of conserved palaces paint a vivid picture of life during the rise to power of Genoa as one of Italy’s most important commercial and social hubs. I had been totally absorbed by the two days that I had spent in the city and there was still a lot more to see and do.

There is the Galata Museo del Mare, the maritime museum and the Genoa Aquarium in the old port area, which has been designed by architect of the Shard, Renzo Piano and, of course, no visit to Italy is complete without sampling the food; an example is that Genoa is recognised as producing the world’s best pesto.

This is an ideal destination for both lovers of culture and people who enjoy the pleasures of the Italian lifestyle. Direct flights from London, an airport close to the city centre and all the attractions in a compact area make it ideal for a break.

Useful Facts
For more information on Genoa visit www.visitgenoa.it
For more information on Liguria visit www.turismoinliguria.it
Stays at the Best Western Hotel Metropoli costs from £66 per night including breakfast. For bookings: www.hotelmetropoli.it
Direct return flights from London Stansted to Genoa start at £50 with Ryanair. www.ryanair.com
Direct one way flights from London Gatwick from £39 with British Airways. www.britishairways.com
Entry to the Genoa Aquarium costs from £20 per person. www.acquariodigenova.it
Entry to the Galata Museo del Mare is £10 per adult and £5 per child. www.galatamuseodelmare.it/
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