A few weekends each year in Genoa, the city opens the doors of its extravagant 16th Century Rolli Palaces to the general public. It’s a remarkable tour through medieval society, and, with many palazzi in use as flats and offices, a way to nosy into modern Italian life as well.
My guide, Paola, and I have paused on Genoa’s extravagant Via Grimaldi. It’s the second Rolli Weekend of the year (the third is happening on October 15 – 16). During these three weekends, the Ligurian port-city opens the doors of some of its most extraordinary historical addresses – known as the Palazzi dei Rolli – to an eager public. It’s free to look (except for the odd privately-owned palazzo), and guided tours, like mine, are available for €6.
But we’re not gawping at palazzi right now. Instead, we’re admiring a wedding, part of a small crowd that’s gathered on the street. And instead of dressing in all white, the smiling bride is wearing a wedding dress of black.
Two teen girls sidle up behind us. “She looks like a witch,” one says, after a pause.
“Is he the groom?” replies the other, wearing a t-shirt that says, ‘Born in the 00’s’. “Or her father?”
Ah, the modern-minded, generous-hearted youth of Genoa. But it’s a suitable end to a fantastic tour full of European history and culture, and the symbols that the upper echelons of medieval society arrayed itself in to invite judgement.
A Grand Heritage
The majestic Rolli palaces were a result of the republic of Genoa’s medieval zenith in the second half of the 16th Century. As you stroll from palace to palace, you encounter the same four names over and over: Spinola, Grimaldi, Doria, Fieschi. These were medieval Genoa’s four main families, bankers who became fabulously wealthy lending to the powers of Europe.
The palazzi were private residences, but in 1576 they were enrolled in a system of public accommodations (the lists or ‘rolli’) that allowed them to be co-opted by the government in order to host state visits. The palazzi were subdivided and classified according to their opulence, so – to employ common hotel ranking parlance – cardinals, princes and kings would be able to pick their five-star residence of choice, while less important princes or ambassadors might only be offered the four or three star palazzi.
There are nearly 150 palaces dotted throughout the city, but the cluster of 42 that have UNESCO World Heritage status are found in Genoa’s historical heart – Europe’s largest medieval centre. In addition to the usual Rolli Weekend open door delights, Genoa, in celebration of it being a decade since UNESCO status was bestowed, has charted a new tourist path that links two of the most important historical houses in the city – the Palazzo Bianco and the Palazzo Tursi.
My culture crawl began at Palazzo Giorgio Spinola, just a short walk from the main Piazza de Ferrari, and with it I get my first taste of the inconsistency that can be both a small frustration and a chief excitement of a Rolli weekender. It turns out that we are only allowed to view the foyer of this palazzo, as the other rooms are in use. Access varies between the properties – some offer you extensive incursions, while others only allow a peek.
But what a foyer – at its heart is a grotto-style fountain made out of stalactites and shells massed around a marble statue of a leering Pan. The contrast between this fountain, looking like an altar to paganism, and the smooth marble-clad interior of balustrades and pillars is a striking start. After a few minutes absorbing, we’re on to the next one – Palazzo Tommaso Spinola.
Which is just across the street. Here we find elaborate frescos of Perseus and Andromeda decorating the ceiling – the Genovese elite liked to decorate with figures from myth and history (Alexander the Great was a favourite) to allude to special qualities that they and their families (apparently) had. The rest of this palazzo is made up of private residences into which I want to stick my nose, to see what life is like renting a room in a UNESCO palazzo. Paola cautions patience, adding that the opportunity will present itself.
And it does – sort of – at Palazzo Cosmo Centurione. We go upstairs to the first floor to discover a series of elegant, empty rooms decorated with heavenly frescos depicting Columbus discovering America, with the indigenous people portrayed as the damned in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The ornate stucco work blends in beautifully with the painting creating a trompe l’oeil. The rooms are currently available to rent as offices, although I can imagine the UNESCO frescos might cause something of a distraction for employees (but perhaps they’re just used to this sort of thing in Italy?). After we’ve had our fill, Paola discovers another open door on the same floor and we duck inside. It’s unclear whether this is open for the Rolli Days or not, but it turns out to be a residential apartment. We wander through the gilt and marble doorways into a succession of grand spaces, eventually coming to a small walk-in cupboard that Paola explains used to be the chapel area of the apartment in medieval times. “My flat is half this,” Paola says, wistfully looking around.
In a Spinola
After Palazzo Cosmo Centurione, we delve into the twisting centro storico alleyways (known as ‘caruggi’) where, despite it being midday, we walk in deep shade along via San Luca. The smell of incense adds to the medieval feel of this UNESCO street, where imposing marble entryways are sandwiched between knickknack shops and neon-signed hairdressers. A busker sings La Bamba with an Italian inflection. Paola leads me through a series of cobbled alleyways until we arrive at Galleria Spinola.
Both art gallery and palazzo, Galleria Spinola is run as a museum of the Spinola family (it’s also open year-round). The palazzo is presented as it would have been in the late 1500s, with intriguing items on show such as a travelling trunk engineered so you could conduct a mass while in transit. I’m glad to be in a place where everything is worth an ogle, not just the ceilings, as the danger of fresco crick neck on a Rolli Day is quite high. The Golden Gallery, created by the painter Lorenzo de Ferrari, is a highlight of glass and gilt, like a shaft of sunlight piercing the medieval gloom of the centro storico.
Paola’s saved the best for last, and, after popping our head into Palazzo Imperiale (now housing a restaurant and hip cocktail bar, Les Rouges, on the first floor), we make a beeline for Via Garibaldi. As we walk through the centro storico we pass beautiful old shops (there’s a map of the historical shops available from the tourist office), and my guide notes a 300-year old bakery (we smell it before we see it) before a fish shop somewhere seizes olfactory control of the alleyway.
We emerge out into the light on pedestrianised Garibaldi, which acts as a northern border to the centro storico proper. It’s an impressive street and no mistake (also known as the la Via Aurea ‘the Golden Street’), with hulking mansions crowding shoulder-to-shoulder in a relatively narrow flag-stoned channel (guests for the Wedding with the Black Wedding Dress are just beginning to gather). There’s fourteen palazzi on Via Garibaldi with most of their lower stories inhabited by banks (although the town hall is also found here). But Paola is keen that we get into Palazzo Nicolosio Lomellino, built in 1563, before we run out of time; this palazzo was created by a medieval family that made its fortune trading fish and coral in Tunisia.
Today it’s privately owned, so you have to pay five euros to enter (entry to most other palazzi is free), but the prize is the rare garden. We take the stairs up to an elevated Italian garden overseen by a white minaret and other Arabic touches (the owner’s nod to the country that made him wealthy). You could imagine elaborate parties taking place here, the excesses concealed from the envious everyman on the street. Walking past the orange trees heavy with fruit and beneath a wisteria-draped walkway, we inspect the most immense grotto at the rear of the garden, similar in style to the one featuring Pan from our first palazzo. I’d found that initial grotto a little unappealing but after eight-odd palazzi in one day, I’ve been won over to the extravagance. It’s probably best this only happens three weekends a year, otherwise we might become a little too used to strolling in gilded corridors…
For more information go to www.visitgenoa.it.