The history of the palace began on 4th February 1643 when Stefano Balbi (1581-1660), an accomplished financier responsible for creating the street which bears his name, presented his plans for an imposing building project opposite the church of San Carlo. Records show that the architects were Pier Francesco Cantone and Michele Moncino, and later Giovanni Angelo Falcone.
The 17th-century building framework was originally limited to what is now the central body of the building, then as now divided into two piano nobiles and three mezzanines, with two short wings embracing the court of honour towards the sea and joined to the main body of the building by the west wing. The rooms were decorated not only by some of the most renowned Genoese artists of the day such as Giovan Battista Carlone, assisted by talented younger artists such as Valerio Castello, but also by Bolognese artists such as Angelo Michele Colonna and Agostino Mitelli.
The Balbi family was of humble origin. In the 14th Century they were small craftsmen in Valpolcevera and still had a humble name: Cepollina. During the 15th and 16th Centuries the silk trade enabled them to rise to join the Pinelli Albergo (Alberghi were groups of noble families). They retained the name of Pinelli, along with their own surname, until 1575. Thus the name Cepollina evolved to become Cepollina-Pinelli, Balbi-Cepollina and then ultimately just Balbi, possibly after the three fish or ‘barbi’ which appeared on their family crest. They became one of the the most important families in the city and made the crucial crossover from textile merchants to financiers. The Balbi company ledgers reveal the impressive volume and complexity of the family’s activity as financial backers of the Duchy of Milan during Spanish rule and their leading role among the great ‘banchieri di conto’, the club of bankers who fixed the ‘conto’, or exchange rate.
Eugenio Durazzo (1630-1706) acquired the palace in 1679 and was principally responsible for extending it to the east, dramatically changing its original appearance. During the construction of the east wing work was also carried out to the long façade on Strada Balbi, creating a unified frontage. Little trace of the original internal decoration of the Balbi period remains; the Durazzos redecorated most of the rooms from scratch. Eugenio is also believed to be responsible for the reconstruction of the old theatre in the palace, the Teatro del Falcone (The Falcon Theatre), which had been destroyed by fire in 1702.
Following the death of Eugenio his nephew Gerolamo continued to oversee work to the palace during the first half of the 18th Century. It was during this period that the palace assumed the shape and layout still partly visible today, with the construction of the two staircases, the large U-shaped terrace and the enlargement of the court of honour. According to Ratti in 1766, the designer of this new project was the architect Carlo Fontana, brought from Rome by Eugenio shortly before his death. The creation of the Galleria degli Specchi (Hall of Mirrors), inspired by the great halls of Palazzo Colonna and Doria Pamphilj in Rome and particularly the Galerie des Glaces in Versailles, dates back to this period.
The palace was sold in 1824, possibly as a result of the economic crisis which had reduced the family’s wealth; interestingly Napoleon Bonaparte was the first person to declare an interest in buying the palace: in 1808 the Emperor’s functionaries compiled a report listing the advantages of the residence on via Balbi, presumably after it had become available for sale.
The Durazzo family is believed to have originated in Albania and records of them in Genoa date back to the 14th Century. They underwent a rapid rise in status and were inscribed in the Golden Book of Nobility as part of the Grimaldi Albergo in 1528. By 1573 they had become one of the most influential families of the Republic of Genoa. In many ways their history resembles that of the other families of humble origin who became part of the oligarchy: humble origins, a long period of silk weaving and producing, then entry into the world of commerce and finance and finally access to important public office.
Although the 17th Century was a period of decline for the aristocracy, for the Durazzos it was a highpoint. It was at this time that the family’s patrimony became one of the most significant of all Genoa. In addition to their extensive financial influence they also had considerable political power, to the extent that Genoa of 1727 could be described as “The Durazzo Republic”. The French Revolution and the collapse of the Oligarchic Republic heralded the end of their long period of prosperity.
On 10th May 1816 Giuseppe Cardone, chief architect of the Royal Estate for the King of Sardinia, Vittorio Emanuele I, drafted a report proposing the establishment of a Royal Palace in Genoa, a city which had been annexed by the Kingdom of Sardinia two years previously. The former Palazzo Durazzo was bought eight years later, in 1824, although already in 1822 treasures “of the house of His Majesty” were transferred to via Balbi from a temporary apartment in the Palazzo Ducale. New and extensive renovation, decoration, maintenance and alteration work was immediately planned, to prepare the apartments for their new role. In 1831, following the death of Carlo Felice, the Palace passed to Carlo Alberto, seventh prince of Carignano and the new King of Sardinia: during his reign most of the modifications to the palace planned under his father were completed: the creation of the new stables, the decoration of the Sala dell Trono (Throne Room), the Sala dell’Udienza (Audience Chamber), the Salone da Ballo (Ballroom), a noble apartment on the first floor and the construction of a secret covered passage linking the palace to via Prè and the Royal Harbour by means of a bridge over the driveway.
The King and Queen’s apartments were created on the second piano nobile of the east wing while the west wing housed the apartment of the second-born son of King Ferdinand of Savoy, Duke of Genoa. The artists employed by the House of Savoy to decorate these spaces were among the most respected professors of the Ligurian Fine Arts Academy: Michele Canzio, Santo Varni, Giuseppe Frascheri, Cesare Michele Danielli and Giuseppe Isola. In 1821 Carlo Felice acquired an important collection of paintings from a private collector in Genoa, which to some extent filled the gaps left by the heirs of the Durazzo family and through certain important pieces having been transferred to Turin on the orders of Carlo Felice and particularly Carlo Alberto.
In 1919 Vittorio Emmanuele III ceded the Palace to the Italian State.
Since 1922 the west wing of the first piano nobile has housed the Superintendence for Ligurian Monuments, today known as Architectural Heritage and Landscape, and which in future will also encompass the departments for Artistic, Historic and Archaeological Heritage.
Also in 1922 the second piano nobile, which had always been used for official meetings, became a public museum. The 1944 bombing damaged the 18th-century Teatro del Falcone, which was rebuilt from scratch in the early 50s, and the hanging garden. The current paving in the garden, created with the “risseu” mosaic technique, originally came from the destroyed monastery of the Blue Nuns of Castelletto. The flyover constructed in 1964 resulted in the demolition of the “royal bridge” created by the Savoys to link the palace with the harbour.