Touring the Palazzo di San Giorgio in Eighteenth-Century Genoa

[Note: The following is an excerpt from a paper given on 4 December 2020 for the conference Questioning Republicanism in Early Modern Genoa (1576-1684) organized by the R.I.S.K. (Republics on the Stage of Kings) European Research Council Project at the University of Padova. I want to thank Enrico Zucchi and Alessandro Metlica for organizing the wonderful conference.]


basilica della santissima annunziata del vastato

Image 1 | Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato (Postcard c. 1910-1930, Brunner & Co., Italy & Zurich)

A strange account of greed, murder, penance, and redemption from Genoa in the late eighteenth century struck me recently in my research. This strange story can be found in a series of letters written by the English poet, travel writer, and salon hostess, Anna, Lady Miller (1741-1781), who had embarked on a tour of Italy in the 1770s during which she visited Genoa. As Lady Miller told it, one day, she was walking into the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata del Vastato [Image 1] to marvel at the ‘profusion of marble, the lustre of which dazzles the sight’ only to run into, on the steps of the immaculately white church, ‘a very old man, poorly dressed, who licked [the steps] with his tongue’ in the shape of crosses ‘from one end to the other…this he repeated every day at the same hour.’

Curious to know why this man persevered in ‘so singular and disgusting a penance,’ Lady Miller approached the old man who proceeded to wow the noblewoman with his tragic story. The old man had been a trained assassin in his youth, responsible for at least a dozen murders, murder being, according to Lady Miller, ‘no uncommon plan at Genoa; un colpo di coltello is seen in much the same light here, as the bruises' acquired by boxers back in England. Inquiring a bit more, the old man, who Lady Miller referred to as her ciceroni, or local guide, grieved how his lifetime of murder had come back on him when his own son had been killed by a fellow Genoese, who, in turn, ‘concealed himself on board an English or Dutch ship for a short time’ in order to avoid justice, only to return soon after and mock the ciceroni. Despite his urge for vendetta, however, time finally had caught up with the ciceroni. Angry and grieving, the old man had sought out not his sword, but ‘a confessor, who recommended to him the above humiliation of licking, with some scores of Aves and Paters.’

The story of Lady Miller’s rather unusual ciceroni captures a topic that I think is critical for my research on Genoa as a military hub: contemporary foreign views of Genoa and its republic. As Lady Miller’s story attests to, foreign visitors to Genoa in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century held two visions in their heads about the republic. On the one hand, the dominant view of Genoa was of a republic in steep decline – a Genoa of murder, lawlessness, decadence, and superstition, full of ciceroni like the old man Lady Miller met. This is the way most scholars of this period approach foreign travel accounts.

Yet consider again the step-licking ciceroni’s story, especially the moment when his son’s killer hops aboard that English or Dutch ship to evade capture. Read against the grain, there is another side to foreign accounts of Genoa in its last decades: of an internationalizing city, of a city full of foreign spies, travelers, generals, and merchants.

We can explore these two contrasting visions of the city by examining closely changing contemporary accounts of that most important of Genoese institutions: the Casa di San Giorgio. Of course, there was nothing especially novel about seventeenth and eighteenth-century European writers commenting on the city’s public bank. Along with the Darsena (Arsenal) and the Strada Nuova, the Palazzo di San Giorgio was one of the celebrities of the early modern Genoese cityscape most remarked about by contemporary visitors. [Image 2].

Importantly, many of these travelers in the first half of the eighteenth century came to Genoa with one particular conception of San Giorgio in their head: that provided by Niccolò Machiavelli his 1526 Istorie fiorentine. As Carlo Taviani has shown in a recent article, Machiavelli explains San Giorgio as a salve to Genoa’s damaged, republican constitution. The Casa di San Giorgio was founded because the comune needed money, after which, Machiavelli maintained, the affections of Genoa’s citizens swayed away from the comune of Genoa and towards San Giorgio.

il ponte reale il ponte nuovo della mercanzia e il palazzo di san giorgio visti dal mare

Image 2 | Il Ponte Reale, il Ponte nuovo della Mercanzia e il Palazzo di San Giorgio visti dal mare (Friedrich Bernhard Werner, c. 1750, C/O Musei di Genova, Collezioni cartografica e topografica)

Foreign visitors to Genoa at the start of this period followed closely Machiavelli’s basic formula: San Giorgio was, first and foremost, an unusual part of Genoa’s republican constitution. The English poet and essayist Joseph Addison, for instance, described San Giorgio in appropriately Machiavellian terms during a visit to the city in 1701. ‘It distributes the power among more particular members of the republic, and gives the commons a figure: So that it is no small check upon the aristocracy, and may be one reason why the Genoese senate carries it with greater moderation towards their subjects than the Venetian,’ Addison remarked. A similar account can be found in that of the astronomer and writer Joseph Jérome de Lalande in the 1760s, who likened the constitutional place of the Casa di San Giorgio to a chapel inside a larger cathedral. ‘The Bank of St. George forms a Republic of rich people and the great Council a Republic of politicians and Nobles.’

This view began to change, however, as the century progressed. Increasingly, travelers to Genoa took note not only of San Giorgio’s status within the republic, but its international acclaim as a depository for foreign capital. In particular, we can see this change in perspective – from San Giorgio being purely a local institution to an international one – in a wave of pamphlets produced in 1746 and 1747 in London immediately following the Austrian expulsion from Genoa during the War of Austrian Succession (1740-1748). With titles like the Account of the Late Revolution in Genoa and Seasonable Reflections on the Late Convention between the Courts of Vienna and Turin, these anonymous pamphlets attempted to persuade parliamentarians to reconsider the British alliance with Savoy and Austria during that war, which saw Genoa besieged twice and its commerce ravaged.  

At the center of these narrative accounts of the siege, surrender, occupation, and revolt of the Genoese was a vision of the Casa di San Giorgio as a truly international institution. This point is made vividly in the 50-page anonymous political pamphlet, The Case of the Genoese Impartially Stated, during which the plundering of San Giorgio by occupying Austrian troops was posited as a major cause of the revolt.

According to the pamphlet’s anonymous author, the Genoese, faced with ‘the natural Impossibility’ of raising the necessary war indemnities for the Austrians, had been compelled ‘to have Recourse to the last Remedy; the laying Hands on that sacred Depositary, the Bank of St. George, where was lodged not only the Cash of the subjects of this State, but that also of many other Nations.’ To the pamphlet’s author, San Giorgio was ‘this Sacred Deposit of the Wealth of most Nations in Europe’ which ‘had been always regarded, and remain’d unviolated, during all the Convulsions of the State.’ The Austrian demands then would ruin the Bank of St. George ‘by laying forcible Hands on, not only the Property of the Subjects of the Republic, but of many other Nations, intrusted to the Bank.’

What so offended the pamphlet’s author about the Austrian occupation was not its threat to republican freedom, but global markets and access to capital. Thus, while foreign travelers to Genoa in the eighteenth century marveled at the city and filled their accounts with what were by that time centuries-old tropes about the corrosion (real or imagined) of the Genoese republic, they also came to see the city as less an independent sovereign in its own right, and more a cog in a larger commercial or military machine. Concluding his account of the Genoese revolt against the Austrians in 1746, the author of The Case of the Genoese Impartially Stated suggested that Britain need not invade Genoa and should leave its republic intact, at least for now. ‘Let us leave the Genoese, so tenacious of Freedom, the empty Name of Liberty. We are Masters of their Capitol, command their Port, and have Troops enough to keep them in awe …therefore it is our Business to let them remain with the Peel of the Orange, and secure the rich Juice for our own use, rather than appropriate to ourselves the entire Fruit.’


Joseph Addison, Remarks on several parts of Italy, &c. in the years 1701, 1702, 1703 (London, 1718).

Anonymous (Lady Anna Miller), Letters from Italy, 2 vols. (London, 1776).

Anonymous, The case of the Genoese impartially stated; wherein the conduct of that people, the Austrians and Piedmontese, during the late convulsions, is candidly examined… (London, 1747)

Joseph Jérôme Lalande, Voyage d'un François en Italie, fait dans les années 1765 & 1766 (Paris, 1769).

Carlo Taviani, “An Ancient Scheme: The Mississippi Company, Machiavelli, and the Casa di San Giorgio,” in Chartering Capitalism: Organizing Markets, States, and Publics (Political Power and Social Theory, Vol. 29) (2015): 239-256.