Palazzo San Giorgio

Genova, Italy | C.1260

Photo Credit: Hamad Albarjas

Marco! Thankfully, one doesn’t need to have their eyes open to hear the history-making tale that came from these walls. Repainted in fanciful frescoes during the late nineteenth century, this harborside palazzo was once a city prison, housing a world-famous traveler. 

The Palazzo San Giorgio, or Palace of St. George, was originally constructed in 1260 by Guglielmo Boccanegra. An astute statesman, Boccanegra had the palace built as a secular center of power in the Genoese Republic to compete with the religious leaders of the nearby St. Lorenzo Cathedral. His move to consolidate power wasn’t as savvy as he had hoped, however, as Guglielmo was overthrown and exiled to France only two years later. To further hurt the old politician’s feelings, the municipal palace was soon turned into a prison, where political prisoners of the Republic would reside. 

In 1298, a well-traveled Venetian by the name of Marco Polo was captured by the Genoese in the Battle of Curzola. Luckily for Polo, his cell was located right by Rustichello da Pisa, a writer by trade, who was more than eager to recount his cellmate’s adventures to the East. Transcribing Polo’s oral accounts of cities and people he’d interacted with, Rustichello’s Travels of Marco Polo would later be published in Europe, making the Venetian merchant a household name. While over the centuries historians have found Polo’s stories to be a mix of truth and embellishment (he had to sell those books!), there’s no doubt Polo’s time at the Palazzo was quite worthwhile.  

After its service as a prison, the water-facing structure would go on to serve as the headquarters of the Bank of St. George for almost 400 years. Understandably falling apart by the early 18th Century, the citizens of Genoa petitioned to save the building from demolition, and the palace was restored in the ensuing decades. Now back to its original use as a municipal office building of Genoa, free guided tours are run one Sunday each month for any curious visitor. Taking a tour, one might even be inspired to recount their own worldly travels. Polo! 

Written By: Seamus McMahon

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