Sunday, March 8, 2015

Pebble mosaics of the Palazzo Reale, Genoa, Italy

A fountain of a mermaid holding an urn graces the terrace above the Court of Honor at the Palazzo Reale
I spent the winter in Italy this year, mostly in the north of the country.  One of my favorite cities, which I did not spend enough time in was Genoa, which the Italians call Genova.  It is most famous in the west as the supposed birthplace of Christopher Columbus, although that is disputed.  Still, it merits a fine statue.

A monument to Christopher Columbus on the Via Balbi in Genoa

The Palazzo Reale, or Royal Palace in Genoa sits on a hill across from the Church of San Carlo on the Via Balbi, in an area of the city that was being developed in the 17th Century in to a fashionable neighborhood for the city's wealthiest families.

A Renaissance period grotto in a palazzo on Via Balbi 
The project of building the palace was begun in 1643 for the Balbi family who rose to noble status through successful trade in the production of silk, and later banking.

Lavish silk wall coverings in the palace
But fortunes and styles change, and finacial problems forced the Balbi family to sell the palace.

Portrait of Catarina Balbi
Substancial additions were made in to the next century by the next owner Eugenio Durazzo, who's family became the most influencial in Genoa.  His son Gerolamo completely refurbished the palace after his father's death, so that almost nothing remains of the original Balbi Palace, even though it had been ornamented by some of Genoa's finest artists and craftsmen.  Being patrons of the theater and opera, the Teatro Falcone was build adjacent to the palace.

Gate leading to the Court of Honor of the Palazzo Reale
A view from the garden to the gate
In 1816, the Savoy dynasty of Torino petitioned to make the palazzo in to a royal palace.  Their son Ferdinand was given the title Duke of Genoa, and sumptuous apartments were built for his parents the Duke and Dutchess of Savoy, and himself.  The Savoy Palace in Torino to the north has a grandeur comparable to Versailles outside of Paris, which became the enviable model for what a royal family should aspire to.  So great halls with mirrors became all the rage in a number if Italian royal palaces, the one in Genoa included.  This hall was used for important diplomatic receptions.

Galleria degli Specchi, The Hall of Mirrors
Sala del Trono, The Throne Room of the Duke of Savoy in the Palazzo Reale
A very well made film about the palace can be seen here that covers the detailed history of the development of the palace interiors and the families who inhabited it.  No mention is made of the gardens since they are a much later addition, which I am discussing here.

A romantic fresco with Puti and a mandoline player in the ballroom
The frequent remodeling of the palace includes the peculiar looking wings with roof terraces were added to the back of the main building, and have that tacked on look but also makes for a look something like a  fancily frosted cake.

The Palazzo Reale with its awkward additions
The 1944 bombing of Genoa by the allies damaged the Teatro del Falcone in the palace but most of the building was spared, unlike so many others important historical buildings throughout Italy.  In the 1950's the theater was rebuilt and the 'Hanging Garden' terraza was installed.

Pebble Mosaic in the Risseu style
The pebble mosaics were reassembled here after being removed from the war damaged Monastery of the Blue Nuns of Castelleto district.  The mosaics have ornate white pebble designs set in a field of black pebbles depicting a series of animals, and scenes from daily life surrounding an 8 sided marble fountain basin.  These are the lovliest pebble mosaics that I saw while traveling in the Liguria Province.

Wide axial paths connect connect it to the palace and lead to a view towards the lighthouse and harbor.  Its quite beautiful from the ground plain or seen from the roof terrace and bridge arcade above.

The pebble mosaic terraza was once part of a Convent that was heavily damaged in World War II and moved to the palace during restoration.
This traditional style of pebble mosaic is called Risseu and can be seen all over the region of Liguria, although usually the patterns are more simple.  The Genoese kingdom spread across parts of the Mediterannean and Adriatic and Aegean and Black Seas in the 13th Century, and along with it came the import of pebble mosaics.  I saw several elaborate Risseu style mosaics in front of Turkish mansions on the island of Lesvos in Greece dating from the Ottoman empire in the late 19th Century which were influenced by the Ligurian Risseu style.

An Ottoman period mosaic in the Ligurian Risseu style in Mytilini, on the Island of Lesvos, Greece
Dogs hunting a wild boar at the Palazzo Reale
The mosaics relocated to the hanging garden terrace in Genoa depict a number of exotic animals in natural settings, forming a kind of zoo like menagerie.  There are hunting scenes, and wild animals from far away lands, and mythological creatures that would have added an entertaining and somewhat educational relevance to the designs.  Some of them could be telling a story but I am not aware of what they would be.

A leopard in a forest in the Palazzo Reale's pebble terrazza
A stag mosaic at the Palazzo Reale
Elephant with a monkey on its back under a palm.  It is possible that the artists had never actually seen a real elephant.
A Seahorse

The mosaic terrace has very good proportions and sets the stage for the view of the harbor although industrial development has made the view towards the harbor less appealing than it once was.
Fishermen drinking wine while they work
A man herding mules to a Mill

The Mosaic Garden looking out to the Genoa Harbour
A plaque commemorating the restoration of the Palazzo's mosaics

The scale of the garden is very pleasing, with its plantings of native Chamaerops humilis, the Mediterranean Fan Palm and other species, as well as Italian Cypresses
A white marble balustrade borders the terrace of the Hanging Gardens

Looking down from the arcade bridge built that divides the Hanging Garden from the Court of Honor
Marble urns and the Mermaid fountain on the arcade
A man playing a horn in the forest
An ancient Roman sarcophagus ornaments one of the axial paths of the garden

View of the harbor lighthouse from the Hanging Gard
A video can be seen at this link showing the process of building a Risseu technique pebble mosaic.
The process is obviously tedious, something I know very well from building them over the last 3 decades, although my process is quite different.  The pebbles used in this work have a very uniform shape and thickness enabling them to be set in a thin bed of lime mortar.

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The results are quite wonderful to behold, and pavement fit for a king.  Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

These are some images of other pebble mosaics that I saw in the beautiful town of Portofino, north east of Genoa.  It is traditional to see these kinds of mosaics around churches.

4 dolphins and 2 tridents