What usually comes to mind when we think of Genoa are its industrial port, waterfront aquarium, and Ligurian pesto and focaccia. But it is the palaces that make up the Palazzi dei Rolli (“the Palaces of the Lists”), 42 of which have been designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, that truly make Genoa the twinkling gem of the Mediterranean.
These have been restored both by the city and by private owners such as Carlo Clavarino. Clavarino, an executive chairman at AON Insurance (and father of Air Mail’s Senior Editor, Elena Clavarino), has spent the last few years reviving the Palazzo Spinola out of a sense of “global responsibility” to the city in which he was raised but which he left 40 years ago.
“When I first saw Palazzo Spinola as a child, I thought it was perfection in its elegance and beauty—almost to the point of being too attractive,” Clavarino says. “At a dinner I had the honor of sharing with the late Queen of England, she remembered Palazzo Spinola from her visit to Genoa in 1980 as the most beautiful palazzo she had ever seen.”
Open to the public, Palazzo Spinola shines out among the many other palazzi on the town’s prestigious Via Garibaldi. They are all the result of the city’s vast economic power during the 16th and 17th centuries, when Genoa was considered the financial capital of Europe.
This was largely due to the work of the Genoese statesman Andrea Doria, who in 1528 struck a deal with the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that enabled Genoese bankers to engage in high-risk loans and international deal-making.
In turn they built the palaces in which they lived, entertained visiting dignitaries, and displayed their art. By the mid-1500s, 30 of the 50 wealthiest families in the world lived in Genoa, and the city possessed 30 percent of all the gold in existence.
Clavarino, who bought the palace with his brother Roberto, was inspired by his idol, Doria. “I’ve always been frustrated by how little people know about Genova and its rich history,” says Clavarino. Indeed, despite this prosperous past, the Genoese are teasingly referred to as frugal by Italians of other regions.
The Clavarino brothers have been anything but. Together they have restored all of the palace’s 16th-century ceiling and wall frescoes, donated some of their own family’s art collection, and acquired a Rubens, a Van Dyck, and a Tintoretto.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Genoa was considered the financial capital of Europe.
These accompany the palazzo’s original collection of Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces, a 13-foot-wide chandelier of 1,000 candles illuminating a frescoed dining room, a hall of mirrors recalling Versailles, and a bookcase that conceals a bedroom behind its shelves.
“Genoa used to be the Wall Street of the world,” says Clavarino. “Why shouldn’t it still be culturally?”
Along with Marco Bucci, the mayor of Genoa, Clavarino founded Friends of Genoa, a foundation supporting the preservation of the city’s cultural heritage. It works to lure high-profile donors to inject new energy into the renovation of the old city. The foundation recently hosted the architect Norman Foster and the designer Valentino at the Palazzo Spinola and last week hosted a sumptuous gala-dinner there in honor of American choreographer John Neumeier, following a ballet honoring his work.
The foundation intends to set up exchange programs, fellowships, conferences, and galas supporting ballet, music, and the arts. Plans are also in the works to restore many of the city’s art-historical masterpieces, such as The Circumcision, by Peter Paul Rubens, Orazio de Ferrari’s The Last Supper, and the sumptuous “season” frescoes at the Palazzo Rosso.
While the palazzo is primarily used to host fundraising functions and cultural tours, Clavarino also uses it as his private residence on the few nights he finds himself back in his hometown.
“Carlo is a precious person for the city of Genoa,” says Renzo Piano, the Genoa-born starchitect. “He is investing a great deal to make it known for its beauty.” The admiration is mutual. Clavarino recalls how Piano helped the city spring back from the terrible collapse of the Morandi Bridge in 2018—which took the lives of 43 people—with his design for the San Giorgio Bridge, which replaced it in 2020.
Clavarino keeps the words Piano said on the one-year anniversary of the bridge’s collapse close to his heart: “I challenge anyone to tell me something, just one thing, that can’t be done or that hasn’t already been done in our Genova.”
Sheila Pierce is a Rome-based journalist. She writes about Italy in her newsletter, Missives from a Metropolis