An Italian city with houses fit for a king

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(CNN) – It is an Italian city with palaces so impressive that they are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city was once home to so much wealth that its aristocracy lived in surroundings literally fit for a king, and the place where Rubens began his great artistic career.

Rome? Florence? Palaces overlooking the Grand Canal in Venice?

No: Genoa.

Seen by many as “just” a port city — the approach to the water by ugly post-war urban developments and the vast port itself, which stretches almost 14 miles along the coast — it is in fact the capital of Liguria. Italy’s most spectacular cities.

It’s home to what is said to be the most complete medieval city center in Europe, and beautiful art nouveau architecture in its “new” area (yes, “new” is still an old city). But what caught UNESCO’s attention in 2006 were the Palazzi dei Rolli or Rolli Palaces, a system of aristocratic palaces so impressive that they were used as prototype hotels for visiting dignitaries and even kings.

Palazzo Spinola’s Hall of Mirrors is modeled after Versailles.

CA Alessi

Rolli is the plural of “rollo” — the old word for “list” — so the term means “Listed Palaces.” That’s because they were literally palaces added to a Renaissance-era list compiled by the all-powerful Republic of Genoa. This was no ordinary list; it was a collection of palaces so impressive that the state could own them as accommodation for VIP visitors.

The list was first created in 1576 by a decree of the senate of the republic, “assigning the use of private houses to host state visitors,” says Giacomo Montanari, an art historian at the University of Genoa and scientific curator of Rolli Days. there, many palaces are open for visits.

“Instead of meeting in a royal palace, like in Versailles or Madrid, they were in the individual homes of aristocrats.”

Rating of Michelin-style mansions

The Palazzo is the town hall and museum.

The Palazzo is the town hall and museum.

Aivar Mikko/Alamy Stock Photo

Aristocrats already effectively ruled Genoa — an “oligarchic society,” says Montanari. And the palaces were also listed in different groups, according to their quality, and which ones were good enough to organize.

“They were suitable for different types of guests, so if an ambassador was coming there were middle or high-end houses, while for monarchs or archbishops there were better quality places,” says Montanari, who compares the groups to hotel star ratings. Michelin star system. Like the latter, houses could be removed from the list or moved down the groups, unless they were empty.

The lists were renewed five times: in 1576, 1588, 1599, 1614 and 1664. In that period, historians know 163 homes that were in the census. The late historian Ennio Poleggi, director of the Institute of Architectural History at the University of Genoa, identified 88 that we can still recognize today. About half of them — 42 — were added to the UNESCO list.

“Tourists are always amazed by the beauty of our palaces,” says tour guide Laura Gregis. “Many of them have been to Genoa before to catch the ferry, but they didn’t think it was worth the stop. The Rolli palaces are probably the most important factor in getting people to see the city now. In the last few years.” I had a great attraction for the city — they perfectly represent the economic power of Genoa in the 16th and 17th centuries. centuries, and the UNESCO list has made it even more famous.”

“City of Wonders”

Palazzo Spinola is now an art gallery.

Palazzo Spinola is now an art gallery.

Toni Spagone/Real Easy Star/Alamy Stock Photo

Because the palaces are not just works of art in themselves, they represent the amazing story of Genoa’s success.

During the centuries it was known as “la città dei miracoli” – the city of miracles – because “completely unthinkable things could happen there”, says Montanari. In 1528, the Genoese politician Andrea Doria signed an agreement with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V for Genoese bankers to become the largest financiers of the Spanish crown.

“This allowed them to build some very high-risk activities with an unthinkable amount of money, even by today’s standards,” he says, likening it to today’s global stock market. “The largest loans in history in the 16th and 17th centuries.

And this unimaginable wealth allowed them to rebuild their homes, build new ones, and basically build a new city on top of the old one. These are the “new streets” or “strade nuove” recognized by UNESCO. Three streets — Via Garibaldi, Balti and Cairoli — encircle the original medieval center of Genoa, full of sprawling mansions built on top of that unimaginable banking wealth. Via Garibaldi, on the northern edge of the medieval city, on top of a hill, was actually called “Strada Nuova” or “new street” when it was built. The buildings are so impressive that the painter Rubens – who came to Genoa for his first commissions – published a book of drawings of them all in 1622.

Below are also the Palazzi dei Rolli, in the heart of the Middle Ages, but, says Montanari, they are medieval buildings that were reused and expanded rather than being built from scratch. That is why they are not on the UNESCO list.

In 2006, UNESCO inscribed “Le Strade Nuove and the Rolli palace system” on its World Heritage List, including 42 of the 88 buildings known today — built from scratch in the 16th and 17th centuries. became “new streets” rather than medieval palaces. “UNESCO wanted to highlight the new city built by this new aristocratic society, which had a new role as the great bankers and financiers in Europe, the people who held the financial survival of the European kingdoms in their hands,” says Montanari.

He says it’s a place where time has stopped. “Strada Nuova [Via Garibaldi] it is still as it was in 1580 when it was completed, and you can enter the heart of a European Renaissance city. It is extraordinary.

Shops and bars as palaces

Via Garibaldi 12 design store is located in a Rolli palace.

Via Garibaldi 12 design store is located in a Rolli palace.

Via Garibaldi 12

Of course, hosting kings, queens and ambassadors in your home was no easy task. The state did not pay any expenses, so the owners incurred huge expenses. On the plus side, it gave many families access to the great and good they were getting to make money. The Pallavicino family built a fortune from their monopoly on the quarries of alum — a chemical compound used to fix fabric dyes — through contacts in what is now their headquarters in Lazio. Others were less fortunate, and therefore less happy. Another aristocrat, Andrea Spinola, “struck several times with the decree,” says Montanari. Don’t feel too bad, though — he became the 99th doge (duke or ruler) of Genoa.

Today, many palaces are open to the public. Some are museums, such as the Palazzo Spinola, now the main art gallery of the Liguria region. In Strada Nuova itself, three palazzos — Rosso (red), Bianco (white) and Tursi have become “scattered” museums of paintings, frescoes, ceramics, coins… and the musical instruments of the Genoese violinist Paganini.

But it is a city that lives its history instead of calcifying it in museums, so many other Palazzi dei Rolli are visited every day, as are shops, bars and banks. About half of those listed by UNESCO are always accessible, says Montanari, whether they are municipal buildings, universities or museums. But there are others, privately owned. Many open their doors for the twice-yearly Rolli Days events.

Walk along Strada Nuova and you will be able to enter many buildings. Some are still homes, but you can see their elegant entrances, porches and staircases. Others are banks, continuing this centuries-old tradition (Deutsche Bank is particularly beautiful at number 5).

Via Garibaldi 12 is the address and name of a design store where items such as Alessi sit next to Zara Hadid furniture under the gold stucco and mirrored walls of this Rolli mansion. The building was renovated in 1770 by Charles de Wailly, a French architect who also worked in Versailles. On the outside he planned a simple neoclassical facade, the better to “impress the guests with the richness of the gold and the mirror multiplication of the interior rooms,” says store owner Lorenzo Bagnara. In fact, one of the rooms in the shop is a small Hall of Mirrors. (Palazzo Spinola and Palazzo Reale, the “royal” palaces of Genoa, also have Versailles-like Halls of Mirrors, although they never had a royal family).

“The idea of ​​putting the store on the second floor, without windows on the street, reflects a lot on the city,” says Bagnarra, who has a degree in cultural heritage conservation. “I think that in Genoa there is always a feeling of discovery and finding something unexpected.”

The store’s design “aims to combine tradition and the present,” he said, with gilded wood and steel displays. In his university thesis he wrote: “how can the restoration of a place of historical and artistic value be achieved only through the knowledge of it, and how an activity, even if commercial, that includes respect for the space in which it is located, can be a vehicle for enjoying and maintaining the property” , he says.

In the medieval heart is Les Rouges, a cocktail bar inside the Palazzo Imperiale, built around 1560 for the Imperiale family, who still own it, and from 1576 to 1664 in Rolli.

“It’s different from normal offices, it’s a very special atmosphere,” says Matteo Cagnolari, director of Les Rouges, about his workplace. It’s not all plain sailing — strict conservation rules mean they can’t even install air conditioning — but Cagnolari says he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“Many palazzos still have private owners — often the same families that built them — so the owners don’t have to turn them into museums,” he says of why Genoa is special. Above their bar is an architectural studio.

In fact, Genoese are so used to seeing these works of art as normal buildings that many have forgotten that they are not normal.

Palazzo Rosso is an art gallery on Via Garibaldi.

Palazzo Rosso is an art gallery on Via Garibaldi.

dudlajzov/Adobe Stock

“Sometimes they don’t see the beauty of our city,” says Gregis. “They asked me: ‘But where do you take the tourists? What do you show them?'”

For Montanari, this mix of old and new preserves Genoa’s identity, keeping it alive, becoming more and more important as visitor numbers rise and Airbnbs spread throughout the city.

“Here, tourists are surprised that the city lives independently of them. They love to host tourists, but the activities are not only aimed at tourists,” he says.

“It keeps these areas alive, and keeps the Genoese way of life in a way that Florence and Venice have lost.”