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(CNN) — It's the Italian city home to palaces so spectacular that they're UNESCO World Heritage sites. A city that was once home to so much wealth that the local aristocracy lived in environments literally fit for a king, and the place where Rubens began his great artistic career.
Rome? Florence? The Grand Canal-facing palaces of Venice?
Seen by many as "just" a port city -- one whose approach by water is often marred by ugly postwar urban development and the sprawling port itself, which stretches nearly 14 miles along the waterfront -- the capital of Liguria is in fact one of Italy's most spectacular cities.
It's home to what's said to be the most intact medieval city center in Europe, and beautiful art nouveau architecture in its "new" area (yes, this is a city where "new" is still old). But what drew UNESCO's attention in 2006 was the Palazzi dei Rolli, or Rolli Palaces -- a system of aristocratic mansions so spectacular that they were used as proto-hotels for visiting dignitaries and even royalty.
Palazzo Spinola's Hall of Mirrors is modeled on Versailles.
Rolli is the plural of "rollo" -- the old word for "list" -- so the term means "Palaces of the List." That's because they were, quite literally, mansions added to a Renaissance-era list compiled by the all-powerful Republic of Genoa. This was no ordinary list -- it was a compilation of palaces so spectacular that the state could commandeer them as lodgings for VIP visitors.
The list was first created in 1576 by a decree of the republic's senate "that assigns the use of private homes to host visitors of the state," says art historian Giacomo Montanari from the University of Genoa, and the scientific curator of the Rolli Days, in which many of the palaces open up for tours.
"Instead of being met in a royal palace, like at Versailles or Madrid, they were in the individual homes of aristocrats."
Michelin-style palace ratings
Palazzo is the City Hall and museum.
Aivar Mikko/Alamy Stock Photo
The aristocrats already effectively ran Genoa -- it was, says Montanari, an "oligarchical society." And the mansions were even listed in different bands, depending on their quality, and who they were fine enough to host.
"They were suited to different kinds of guests -- so if an ambassador arrived there were medium to high level houses, whereas for monarchs or archbishops there were places of even better quality," says Montanari, who likens the bands to hotel star ratings or the Michelin star system. Like the latter, homes could be removed from the list or demoted down the bands if they weren't up to scratch.
The lists were redone five times: in 1576, 1588, 1599, 1614 and 1664. Over that period, historians know of 163 homes that were on the rolls. The late historian Ennio Poleggi, who was director of the Institute of the History of Architecture at Genoa University, identified 88 that we can still recognize today. Around half of them -- 42 -- were added to UNESCO's list.
"Tourists are always amazed by the beauty of our palaces," says tour guide Laura Gregis. "Lots of them have been to Genoa before to take the ferry, but they didn't think it was worth stopping. The Rolli Palaces are probably the most important trigger now that pushes people to see the city. In the last few years they've been a huge draw to the city -- they perfectly represent Genoa's economic power in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the UNESCO listing has made them even more famous."
The 'city of miracles'
Palazzo Spinola is now an art gallery.
Toni Spagone/Realy Easy Star/Alamy Stock Photo
That's because the palaces aren't just works of art in themselves -- they represent the mindblowing story of Genoa's success.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, this was known as "la città dei miracoli" -- the city of miracles -- because "absolutely unthinkable things could happen there," says Montanari. In 1528, Genoese politician Andrea Doria signed a deal with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V for Genoese bankers to become the biggest financiers of the Spanish crown.
"This allowed them to construct a series of very high risk activities with unthinkable amounts of money, even by today's standards," he says, equating it to today's global stock exchange. "The biggest loans in history were done by the Genoese in the 16th and 17th centuries."
And that unthinkable wealth allowed them to redo their homes, build new ones, and essentially build a whole new city on top of the old. These are the "new streets" or "strade nuove" recognized by UNESCO. Three streets -- via Garibaldi, via Balbi and via Cairoli -- wrap around Genoa's original medieval center, filled with vast palaces, built on that unimaginable banking wealth. Via Garibaldi, which sits at the northern edge of the medieval city, on a hillside, was in fact called "Strada Nuova" or "new street" when it was built. The buildings are so impressive that painter Rubens -- who came to Genoa for his first commissions -- published a book of drawings of them all in 1622.
There are also Palazzi dei Rolli down below, in the medieval core -- but, says Montanari, those are medieval buildings that were repurposed and expanded, rather than being built from scratch. That's why they're not included in the UNESCO listing.
In 2006, UNESCO inscribed "Le Strade Nuove and the system of the Rolli Palaces" onto its World Heritage List, including 42 of the 88 buildings that are still known today -- those that were built from scratch during the 16th and 17th centuries in the "new streets" rather than the medieval mansions that were converted. "UNESCO wanted to highlight the new city built by this new aristocratic society which had a new role in Europe as great bankers and financiers -- people who held the financial survival of the kingdoms of Europe in their hands," says Montanari.
It is, he says, a place where time has stopped. "The Strada Nuova [Via Garibaldi] is still exactly as it was in 1580 when it was finished, and you can enter into the heart of a renaissance European city. It is extraordinary.
Shops and bars as palaces
Design shop Via Garibaldi 12 is set in a Rolli Palace.
Via Garibaldi 12
Of course, hosting kings, queens and ambassadors at your own home was no easy task. The state didn't pay expenses so owners were tasked with significant outlay. On the plus side, it allowed several families to monetize the access they were acquiring to the great and good. The Pallavicino family built a fortune by wangling the monopoly on quarries of alum -- a chemical compound used to fix fabric dyes -- in what's now Lazio through contacts made during their hosting. Others were less lucky, and therefore less happy. Another aristocrat, Andrea Spinola, "lashed out several times about the decree," says Montanari. Don't feel too sorry for him, though -- he became the 99th doge (duke, or ruler) of Genoa.
Today, many of the palaces are open to the public. Some are museums -- like Palazzo Spinola, now the Liguria region's premier art gallery. On the Strada Nuova itself, three palazzos -- Rosso (red), Bianco (white) and Tursi have been turned into a "scattered" museum of paintings, frescoes, ceramics, coins... and the musical instruments of Genoese violinist Paganini.
But this is a city that lives its history rather than calcifies it in museums, so many of the other Palazzi dei Rolli are visitable every day, as shops, bars and banks. About half of the of the UNESCO-listed ones are always accessible, says Montanari -- whether they are council buildings, belong to the university, or are museums. But there are other, privately owned ones, too. Many open their doors for the twice-yearly Rolli Days events.
Walk the Strada Nuova and you'll be able to walk into many of the buildings. Some are still homes -- but allow you to see their fancy entranceways, atriums and staircases. Others are banks, keeping up that centuries-old tradition (Deutsche Bank at number 5 is particularly beautiful).
Via Garibaldi 12 is both the address and the name of a design shop, where items from the likes of Alessi sit beside Zara Hadid furniture under gold stucco and mirrored walls of this Rolli Palace. The building was renovated in 1770 by Charles de Wailly, a French architect who had also worked at Versailles. Outside he planned a simple neoclassical façade -- all the better to "amaze guests with the richness of gold and the multiplication of the mirror in the interior rooms," says shop owner Lorenzo Bagnara. In fact, one of the store's rooms is a mini Hall of Mirrors. (There are also Versailles-like Halls of Mirrors at Palazzo Spinola and Palazzo Reale, Genoa's "royal" palace, even though it never had a royal family.)
"The idea putting the store on the second floor, without windows on the street, very much reflects the city," says Bagnara, who has a degree in the conservation of cultural heritage. "I find that in Genoa there is always a sense of discovery and finding something unexpected."
The store design seeks to "juxtapose tradition and the present," he said, with gilded wood meeting steel displays. In his university thesis he wrote about "how the recovery of a place of historical and artistic value can only be achieved through knowledge of it, and how the inclusion of an activity, albeit a commercial one, that includes respect for the space in which it is housed, can be a vehicle for the enjoyment and maintenance of the property," he says.
Down in the medieval core is Les Rouges, a cocktail bar inside Palazzo Imperiale, built around 1560 for the Imperiale family who still own it, and in the Rolli from 1576 to 1664.
"It's different from regular offices -- it's a very special atmosphere," says Les Rouges manager Matteo Cagnolari of 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 swap it for the world.
"Lots of the palazzos still have private owners -- often the same families that built them -- so the owners don't need to make them into museums," he says, of why Genoa is special. Above their bar is an architectural studio.
In fact, the Genoese are so used to seeing these works of art as ordinary buildings, that many have forgotten that it isn't normal.
Palazzo Rosso is an art gallery on Via Garibaldi.
"Sometimes they don't see the beauty of our city," says Gregis. "I've been asked, 'But where do you take tourists? What do you show them?'"
For Montanari, this mix of ancient and new preserves Genoa's identity, keeping it alive -- ever more important as the number of visitors rises and Airbnbs expand across the city.
"Here, tourists are amazed that the city lives independently from them. They love that tourists are welcomed, but that activities are not aimed only at tourists," he says.
"It keeps these spaces alive, and it maintains the Genoese way of life in a way that Florence and Venice have lost."