If Genova were a person, she would be a somewhat gruff and rangy old lady, initially wary and questioning, who, as soon as she becomes comfortable, opens up and we find ourselves sitting at the table with her and her whole family, among the secrets of her homemade pesto and the tablecloths of her trousseau. Like so many other port cities, the image we often have of Genova is of noise, chaos, a constant coming and going, of leaving and never staying. It is worth giving Genova a chance, however, and delving into that incontrovertible beauty that urges one to observe the city’s every detail, from the most exuberant Baroque architecture to the laundry, hung out in the sun, of those who live in the heart of the city’s caruggi (the narrow alleyways typical of Liguria).
Genova is a real maze. We who are perhaps used to Milan or Turin or Rome–cities that are concentric to an ancient core–are a bit bewildered here because Genova is a long city that crosses miles and runs parallel along the coast.
Getting lost happens in an instant and let’s face it, that is also Genova’s beauty, but with a few tips in hand, one can venture among the unexpected architectural wonders of a city whose history and traditions strike at the heart of those who know how to observe it with due awe. Join us on a tour of Genova’s grand, exuberant buildings through the twists and turns of the caruggi:
CHIESA DEI SANTI VITTORE E CARLO
For those arriving from the Genova Principe Station, the entrance to the city is Via Balbi, an ancient and narrow street dedicated to the important Genoese family. To really grasp the façades of the buildings, one would need to rise above, but you can already sense the grandeur of the architecture beneath the funnel of sky. The Chiesa dei Santi Vittore e Carlo is across the street from the Royal Palace, the residence of the Savoy family, with a double flight of steps that leads the visitor to a sober, high portico. When one crosses the threshold, it is a bewildering riot of stucco, gold, pastel colors and a frescoed dome, soaring amid the warm hues of the sun.
The Spinola Palace, which opens onto a delightful little square with typical Ligurian colors, is almost hidden, and if one does not know its exact location, it escapes the curious eyes of those who want to peek into the patrician palaces. Palazzo Spinola, built in 1594, was richly frescoed in the seventeenth century and has all the trappings of a true palace: the gallerietta where one can lounge and listen to music, the large ballroom lit by an enormous chandelier and the marvelous Gallery of Mirrors, which made its way through Baroque fashions thanks to the one in Versailles that has been imitated throughout Europe.
SAN PIETRO IN BANCHI
Genova is a historic city of commerce, a nexus of continuous exchange of goods and products from all over the world. On Piazza Banchi, formerly the center of Genova’s economic activities, sits a unique church built atop shops selling hardware, household items and more. The shops were incorporated into the structure in 1572 when the church needed to be rebuilt; the rent from these shops financed the reconstruction, and the merchants were able to combine work with prayer in their daily lives. The church is a jewel of this city that knows how to amaze at every turn with its elegant staircase, frescoed loggia and seventeenth-century flavor among putti and multicolored stucco.
Precisely because Genova is a commercial city that has experienced great splendor, the botteghe storiche (historic stores) reflect this inherent elegance. These stores have resisted the untamed passage of rapid time and fast fashion. As much a cultural heritage as museums and galleries, these businesses dress the caruggi with antique signs. There is the Marescotti Patisserie from 1780 with its marble counters and fine liquors; Devoto & Vitale for pajamas and chic, timeless linens; the ancient Erboristeria di San Giorgio, open since 1870; the knife-grinder Torchi in via degli Orefici; the Romanengo confectionery (also open since 1780), which specializes in candied fruit and chocolates; the Moradei optical shop since 1934 and so many others who have been serving the Genovese with kindness for generations.
As all cities have that building that houses the seats of power, dynamically changing over the centuries, Genova also has its centerpiece: Doge’s Palace. With an architectural style that crosses the lines of time–from 14th-century Genoese to Mannerism, Baroque to the Umbertine style that has come from the time of the unification of Italy–Doge’s Palace is imperious from the outside and a maze of rooms and corridors from the inside. In all its splendor, the palace embodies that all-Italian savoir-faire. Today, it is a venue that hosts exhibitions with masterpieces of art history and rich photographic collections.
Once you start to understand the secrets of Genova, you never tire of passing by a church and peeking in at the interiors that are so often different from the sober classical facades. A dazzling example of this is San Siro, commissioned by the wealthy historic Pallavicino family in 1580, which houses a densely frescoed three-aisled masterpiece. Putti, trompe-l’oeil foreshortenings, religious scenes in a thousand colors. Note how the characters dress in the brightest oranges, blues and reds–visible thanks to an exceptional restoration.
Like a dream, this castle’s high tower soars over the landscape of Genova, suddenly taking us back to a distant era between the 14th and 15th centuries when castles went from being brick forts to elegant courts and princely seats. In reality, this building is the product of the eclectic genius of Gino Coppedè, famous throughout Italy for evoking bygone times. Commissioned in 1893, Coppedè completed the castle in 1905 for the Mackenzie family, originally from Florence. For years, the castle, a special place that inspires fairy tales and legends, was the headquarters of Cambi Auction Houses, founded in Genova in 1998.
ART NOUVEAU PALACE
Getting lost also means walking with our noses to the sky, looking for the architecture and art we are most passionate about. I, who am in love with Art Nouveau and its elegant decorations, could not help but admire the palace at 11 Via Raggio. Of an intense yellow combined with the ochre of the bas-reliefs and the gray of the concrete balconies, the palace dominates a block in the heights of Genova with splendid floral friezes carved into the facade. Typical of the period are the female physiognomies representing industry, peace, flora and fauna, or even just that sophisticated side of a city that must have been an open-air masterpiece.