GENOA – Throughout its history, Genoa has been the meeting point not only
between the disparate cultures of the east and west but also between those of
the north and south. Since the city is bounded by high mountains in the north
and the Mediterranean Sea in the south, it is squeezed into a narrow belt which
stretches for 33 kilometers.
It is the largest port in Italy with a
population of approximately 650,000. Despite its art, palaces, museums and
inviting gardens, it is invariably bypassed by tourists.
From the outset,
the Genoese proved to be outstanding traders and merchants. It was
prominent city in the sixth century BCE. From about the year 1000, Genoa
a powerful maritime republic with military dominion over most of the
Mediterranean, and it exerted considerable commercial influence. Genoa’s
rivals were the other maritime republics, Pisa, Venice and Amalfi. As a
for participating in the First Crusade, the Genoese were allowed to
trading colonies in the Near East.
What the Genoese singularly failed to
do was to govern the city efficiently for the benefit of all its
Political life was characterized by turmoil and civic strife. The real
in the hands of a bank, the Casa di San Giorgio. This syndicate
city, its overseas possessions and, most critically, the treasury.
Doria became doge in 1528, and under him the republic reached its zenith
power and influence. He was a great patron of the arts and introduced
Renaissance to the city. This was the beginning of the century of the
whose traders, bankers and navigators financed the Spanish empire
profits accrued from the discovery and exploitation of the New World.
Genoa was one of the most populated cities in the world and it earned
distinction of being the only Western city mentioned in the Arabian
recently, it played a crucial role in the Risorgimento (unification of
The main guiding spirit of this movement, Giuseppe Mazzini, was born in
and his family home is today the museum of the Risorgimento.
famous son was Christopher Columbus. The city received a major facelift
in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the
World. It was the European capital of culture in 2004. Over the last 20
Genoa has undergone major urban renewal including restructuring the old
(Porto Antico) and reclaiming of the seafront. The master plan was drawn
Pritzker Prizewinning architect Renzo Piano, who was born in the
This area has now become the most important tourist attraction of
Genoa and has transformed the city. There is an impressive aquarium, the
in Europe and one of the major Italian tourist attractions.
highlights of the Porto Antica include a biosphere, which contains a
with plants and birds, an impressive science center for children aged
14 and a panoramic revolving elevator, which offers astounding views of
and port area.
Also present in this complex is the Galata maritime
museum, the largest in the Mediterranean.
This gives a kaleidoscopic view
of the history of seafaring from early row boats to large transatlantic
The exhibition is arranged over four floors. There is a hall dedicated
Columbus with his famous portrait by Ghirlandaio, and a shipyard armory
rich collection of weapons together with a reconstruction of a 17th
Genoese galley. Another floor houses globes and ancient atlases. An
exhibit allows the visitor to experience the thrill of steering a boat
the stormy Cape Horn. Finally there is an interactive exhibit showing
difficulties Italian immigrants endured on the steamships departing from
for Ellis Island in New York.
We were fortunate in meeting Claudia Pinna
of the National Tourist Agency who arranged for the informative tourist
Marina Firpo, to show us around. There are more than 24 museums in
constraints allowed me to visit only a few.
Via Garibaldi, also known as
Via Aurea, contains numerous palaces built in the Renaissance style.
the homes of wealthy, powerful and aristocratic Genoese families at the
of the city’s seafaring and financial power. Many have frescos and
their façades, often with trompe l’oeil pilasters, balconies, terraces,
monumental staircases and magnificent gardens.
This area was declared a
UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006. Today these palazzi function as
galleries, offices, bank headquarters and private homes.
residential palazzi (Tursi, Rossi and Bianco) on Via Garibaldi have been
into important art museums and house a host of treasures. Notable
include several of the Italian (Caravaggio, Veronese, Lipi, Pontormo,
and Reni), Flemish (Memling, David, Rubens and van Dyck), German (Durer)
Genoese (Strozzi) schools. Especially prominent are the paintings by
Dyck who came to Italy in 1621 and remained for six years studying the
masters. He was mostly based in Genoa, and it was here that he began his
as a successful portraitist for the city’s aristocracy.
sea is the Palazzo di San Giorgio. This was originally the headquarters
Casa di San Giorgio and it now houses the premises of the Port Authority
Genoa. This 13th century structure has a great frescoed façade with the
George slaying the dragon. The explorer Marco Polo was once held
as a prisoner in this building.
The Palazzo del Principe was the first
royal palace built during the republic for Doge Andrea Doria. Its
to the sea and include a fountain of Neptune, designed by a pupil of
Andrea Doria’s magnificent portrait by Sebastian del Piombo
can be seen in this building, which contains remarkable frescoes by
pupil of Raphael.
Another interesting building is the Pallazo del
Universita which was built in 1630 as a Jesuit college. The interior has
tiers of arcades which surround an impressive courtyard. The famous Aula
(great hall) houses six statues of the virtues by Giambologna and
frescoes by Michele Colonna.
Palazzo Ducale was the residence of the
doges and is now the city’s cultural center.
For hundreds of years one of
its towers, the Torre Grimaldina, was used as a prison for political
of the republic, artists or others of noble descent. The virtuoso
composer Niccolo Paganini, a native of Genoa, was imprisoned here after
accused of kidnapping and seduction.
The Staglione cemetery is a city in
itself, with miniature chapels, temples, palaces and cathedrals. In his
Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote of the cemetery that “we shall
remember it after we shall have forgotten the palaces... On either side
walks down the middle of the passage are monuments, tombs and sculptured
that are exquisitely wrought and are full of grace and beauty.”
Commenda, an outstanding example of Genoese Romanesque art, dating from
century, was Genoa’s first hotel.
This hospice-convent offered
accommodation for knights and pilgrims of the First Crusade on their way
There are other relics of the crusaders in Genoa’s black and
white striped cathedral, the Duomo di San Lorenzo, which dates from the
century and contains a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic and baroque styles.
Treasury houses a bowl brought home by Genoese crusaders which was
have been used in the Last Supper and is said to be the Holy Grail.
also has a rich cultural tradition of music. I was fortunate to hear a
performance of Wagner’s epic opera Tristan
at the opera house, Teatro
This opened in 1828, was destroyed in World War II and
subsequently rebuilt. Conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti led a robust and
reading of Wagner’s score and also directed the production. The staging
Mauricio Balo comprised large curving timbers of a ship. The
Ian Storey as Tristan and soprano Elaine McKrill as Isolde, did
in their punishing and difficult roles. Bass Andrzej Saciuk rose to the
as King Mark, and mezzo-soprano Monika Waeckerle was most effective as
This was indeed a memorable performance.
Petrarch, the Italian poet and
Renaissance humanist, called Genoa “La Superba.” This jewel on the
certainly lives up to this appropriate name.