RETURN TO GENOA. Carlo Clavarino is Executive Chairman of the AON insurance company’s Europe Middle East and Africa region. 22,000 people work for AON in this area and Clavarino is a member of the executive committee of AON Corporation. He is also president of the Rimini based San Patrignano Foundation, founded and financed by Gian Marco and Letizia Moratti, the largest and most successful drug recovery centre which hosts one thousand three hundred drug addicted people, 72 percent of whom recover.

This interview is also available to listen to as a podcast.

Carlo Clavarino, you were raised in an aristocratic family in Genoa. In your career you worked mainly in Milan, London and Madrid, but is your heart still in Genoa?  

Not only my heart, but my tummy is in Genoa. I have a very strong feeling for my home town. Genoa is not only a great love but also an important point of reference in my life. Since I left in 1982 I’ve been all over the world. I take 300 planes per year and travel so much, but remain very attached to my place of origin. Genoa is the place that gives me stability.

You recently bought and restored the historic Palazzo Spinola in Genoa. Why?

I always had a dream to have a historic palace in my hometown. Seven years ago, a couple of days before Christmas, I was having dinner with my brother in a restaurant in another historic palace and I said to my brother that we should have bought the palace the restaurant was in. He replied, ‘you should buy Palazzo Spinola, it is for sale.’ It is one of the most beautiful, in a very important renaissance street, Via Garibaldi. I couldn’t sleep at night until I was able to buy it. Since then I have invested all my spare time restoring it, and buying furniture and paintings. I have been encouraged by my family and friends, and the local authorities support me in this initiative.

Is your family still very attached to Genoa?

Enormously. For my father, Genoa has been always the centre of the world, despite the fact that he also travelled and lived abroad for a long time.

Are you going to go back and live in Genoa?

I don’t have a plan. Certainly I want to spend time there, and I want to give other people the opportunity to visit this palace. Scholars can come and study its very important frescos and architecture, already started when Rubens made a visit to Genoa around 1608. He worked in Genoa and was really impressed, not only by the beauty of the local palaces and their richness, but also by the effectiveness and modernity of their architecture. My palace is one of those that he meticulously studied.

Is it going to be an art centre or a museum or a private house?

All three if possible. I’ve been visiting English foundations where they’ve been able to combine these three things together. They are still private houses, but also museums and cultural centres.

“Not only my heart, but my tummy is in Genoa.”

An interior view of the splendid Palazzo Spinola on Genoa’s Via Garibaldi following its purchase and recent restoration by Carlo Clavarino.

Carlo Clavarino, what is so special about Genoa?

It is fascinating how it has been able to remain a hidden place, but it is part of Genovese culture not to show off. This is very attractive in a world that puts everything on display. 

Why there are so many Palazzi and works of art in Genoa?

Even more than Rome, Genoa is a town where historic families still live in their own palaces. They haven’t changed addresses for 500 years. In 1550, thirty of the fifty richest families in the world were in Genoa. At that moment 30 % of the gold of the world was in Genoa, and 80% of the public debt of the huge empire of Charles V, King of Spain, was in the hands of these families.

How come?

They were bankers and financiers. Many friends and I think that their fantastic ability to manage not only trade and commerce but also finance was learned from the Jewish people who escaped from the Inquisition in Spain in 1492. In Venice they were enclosed in the ghetto, but in Genoa they mixed with the local upper class. This mingling of cultures was not only with the Jews. Genoa accepted people from all over the world. Despite being so closed and discreet in business, they have been always very open to diversity.

Genoa has had its good moments but then it has also descended into decadence?

The gold moment was a fantastic period that lasted from 1520 until 1627, when Philip, the grandson of Charles V, became bankrupt. But the Genovese were enormously rich again two hundred years later.

How come?

Because they were able to do business all over the world, not just with the Spanish. New families arrived and recreated the finance businesses. In 1750 they created an enormous amount of money, and then again in 1850 thanks to Raffaele De Ferrari, the Duke of Galliera, who at the time was the richest man in the world. He built the entire railway system of Europe, together with the Rothschild family. He generated a great school of entrepreneurs, like Piaggio, Perrone and others. The great families of Genoa were the richest in Italy.

Then there was again decline?

It was the generation factor. The children of these people were not so capable. But Genoa has a 1,000 year history, for 750 years as an independent republic. There have been declines and then big come backs.

“The great families of Genoa were the richest in Italy.”

How is Genoa today?

I want to be optimistic. It’s difficult to think that in the short term Genoa can have a central role in this global world like it had in the past, but it is so economically attractive that it could have a very surprising renaissance. Genoa is geographically in a fantastic place in the centre of Europe, with a fabulous climate, and is attractive for young people because it’s very cheap. It can position itself for Central Europe with many of the characteristics that California has in the United States.

How would you like to see it develop?

We should invest in schools and universities, which we can provide at prices that are enormously competitive. Milano, for example, is now very expensive for a young person that wants to study in a good university, and Barcelona and Munich are also much more expensive. The administrators in Genoa should think long term and plan to attract young talent from all over Europe to come and study.

Is Genoa one of the most visited cities in Italy?

No, and we can do much more than today. Sadly, there has been a huge lack of marketing. For example, Nice is considered part of the Côte d’Azur, but Genoa is not considered part of the Portofino Riviera because in the past it was a place of factories and work and not of pleasure.

Is it possible to change?

I try as much as I can to support the administration to attract investment and interest in Genoa. People who travel want new destinations, and may have been several times to Florence, Venice or Rome, but never to Genoa. Spending time between Genoa and Portofino and the Cinque Terre can compete with any other destination. If Koreans, Chinese or Americans want to spend a week in this part of the world, I promise you they won’t regret it. The wind, and the light of the sun that both is born and dies on the sea, give this place a unique magic. As I told you at the beginning, this strange mix of melancholy and joy goes directly to your heart and also very strongly to your tummy.

Carlo Clavarino: Exterior of the Palazzo Spinola, Genoa

Carlo Clavarino: Interior of the Palazzo Spinola, Genoa

Carlo Clavarino: Interior of the Palazzo Spinola, Genoa

Carlo Clavarino: Interior of the Palazzo Spinola, Genoa

Carlo Clavarino: Interior of the Palazzo Spinola, Genoa

Alain Elkann and Carlo Clavarino.

“I am a romantic, and I believe in the tradition that navigators return to their home place.”

Carlo Clavarino, the architect Renzo Piano is working on the construction of a new bridge after the disastrous collapse of the Morandi Bridge. Was that a big wound for Genoa? 

It was a disaster, but from all disasters you have the opportunity for rebirth and new energy. Piano is very much loved in Genoa. He is a flag of this desire for redemption that is in the local population at this moment. He and the mayor, Marco Bucci, are a formidable team that I will try to support with all my resources.

Do you know another famous citizen from Genoa, Beppe Grillo the comedian and co-founder of the Italian Five Star Movement political party?

No, I never met him. He has been incredibly successful and I would be very curious to know a man that has so strongly influenced the last ten years of Italian politics in such an innovative way.

Is he popular in Genoa?

When he was a comic his sense of humour exactly represented the famous sarcasm of the local people, who consider him one of them.

You left Genoa at age 21 and came back again just before your 60s. Are you in the romantic tradition of the great Genovese navigators? 

I am a romantic, and I believe in the tradition that navigators return to their home place, like my hero the 16th-century Genoese admiral Andrea Doria. Someone like Netflix should make a TV series about Andrea Doria, it would certainly be interesting. He was sailing around the world until he was 62 and he lived to be 93. I hope to last so long!

How would you describe yourself?

I am a modern executive and a businessman. I was very lucky to learn enormously from my different employers such as the very Genovese family Pratolongo, and the Moratti family that was a huge example for me, and Pat Ryan and Greg Case, the Americans from Chicago who taught me never to be satisfied but always to try to improve yourself. Something that really was a great teaching in my life happened on my first day of work. Old Mr. Pratolongo called me into his room where we had a long conversation, and at the end he told me: “Carlo, remember, the one who owns money is not rich, but the one who produces money is.” This is very Genovese.