Genoa: A jewel at the crossroads of civilization

A jewel on the Mediterranean.

Genoa (photo credit: Irving Spitz)
(photo credit: Irving Spitz)
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 already a prominent city in the sixth century BCE. From about the year 1000, Genoa became a powerful maritime republic with military dominion over most of the Mediterranean, and it exerted considerable commercial influence. Genoa’s only rivals were the other maritime republics, Pisa, Venice and Amalfi. As a reward for participating in the First Crusade, the Genoese were allowed to establish 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 citizens. Political life was characterized by turmoil and civic strife. The real power was in the hands of a bank, the Casa di San Giorgio. This syndicate controlled the city, its overseas possessions and, most critically, the treasury.
Andrea Doria became doge in 1528, and under him the republic reached its zenith of power and influence. He was a great patron of the arts and introduced the High Renaissance to the city. This was the beginning of the century of the Genoese whose traders, bankers and navigators financed the Spanish empire reaping the profits accrued from the discovery and exploitation of the New World. Medieval Genoa was one of the most populated cities in the world and it earned the distinction of being the only Western city mentioned in the Arabian Nights. More recently, it played a crucial role in the Risorgimento (unification of Italy). The main guiding spirit of this movement, Giuseppe Mazzini, was born in Genoa and his family home is today the museum of the Risorgimento.
Genoa’s most famous son was Christopher Columbus. The city received a major facelift in 1992 in anticipation of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the New World. It was the European capital of culture in 2004. Over the last 20 years, Genoa has undergone major urban renewal including restructuring the old port (Porto Antico) and reclaiming of the seafront. The master plan was drawn up by Pritzker Prizewinning architect Renzo Piano, who was born in the city.
This area has now become the most important tourist attraction of Genoa and has transformed the city. There is an impressive aquarium, the largest in Europe and one of the major Italian tourist attractions.
Other highlights of the Porto Antica include a biosphere, which contains a rain forest with plants and birds, an impressive science center for children aged three to 14 and a panoramic revolving elevator, which offers astounding views of the city 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 liners. The exhibition is arranged over four floors. There is a hall dedicated to Columbus with his famous portrait by Ghirlandaio, and a shipyard armory with a rich collection of weapons together with a reconstruction of a 17th century Genoese galley. Another floor houses globes and ancient atlases. An interesting exhibit allows the visitor to experience the thrill of steering a boat through the stormy Cape Horn. Finally there is an interactive exhibit showing the difficulties Italian immigrants endured on the steamships departing from Genoa for Ellis Island in New York.
We were fortunate in meeting Claudia Pinna of the National Tourist Agency who arranged for the informative tourist guide, Marina Firpo, to show us around. There are more than 24 museums in Genoa. Time constraints allowed me to visit only a few.
Via Garibaldi, also known as Via Aurea, contains numerous palaces built in the Renaissance style. These were the homes of wealthy, powerful and aristocratic Genoese families at the height of the city’s seafaring and financial power. Many have frescos and stucco on 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 museums, galleries, offices, bank headquarters and private homes.
THREE FORMER residential palazzi (Tursi, Rossi and Bianco) on Via Garibaldi have been turned into important art museums and house a host of treasures. Notable paintings include several of the Italian (Caravaggio, Veronese, Lipi, Pontormo, Guernico and Reni), Flemish (Memling, David, Rubens and van Dyck), German (Durer) and Genoese (Strozzi) schools. Especially prominent are the paintings by Anton van Dyck who came to Italy in 1621 and remained for six years studying the Italian masters. He was mostly based in Genoa, and it was here that he began his career as a successful portraitist for the city’s aristocracy.
Overlooking the sea is the Palazzo di San Giorgio. This was originally the headquarters of the Casa di San Giorgio and it now houses the premises of the Port Authority of Genoa. This 13th century structure has a great frescoed façade with the figure of St.
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 gardens slope to the sea and include a fountain of Neptune, designed by a pupil of Michelangelo.
Andrea Doria’s magnificent portrait by Sebastian del Piombo can be seen in this building, which contains remarkable frescoes by Perino, a pupil of Raphael.
Another interesting building is the Pallazo del Universita which was built in 1630 as a Jesuit college. The interior has several tiers of arcades which surround an impressive courtyard. The famous Aula Magna (great hall) houses six statues of the virtues by Giambologna and magnificent 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 opponents of the republic, artists or others of noble descent. The virtuoso violinist and composer Niccolo Paganini, a native of Genoa, was imprisoned here after being 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 continue to remember it after we shall have forgotten the palaces... On either side as one walks down the middle of the passage are monuments, tombs and sculptured figures that are exquisitely wrought and are full of grace and beauty.”
The Commenda, an outstanding example of Genoese Romanesque art, dating from the 11th century, was Genoa’s first hotel.
This hospice-convent offered accommodation for knights and pilgrims of the First Crusade on their way to the Holy Land.
There are other relics of the crusaders in Genoa’s black and white striped cathedral, the Duomo di San Lorenzo, which dates from the ninth century and contains a mixture of Romanesque, Gothic and baroque styles. The Treasury houses a bowl brought home by Genoese crusaders which was reputed to have been used in the Last Supper and is said to be the Holy Grail.
Genoa also has a rich cultural tradition of music. I was fortunate to hear a performance of Wagner’s epic opera Tristan and Isolde at the opera house, Teatro Carlo Felice.
This opened in 1828, was destroyed in World War II and subsequently rebuilt. Conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti led a robust and powerful reading of Wagner’s score and also directed the production. The staging by Mauricio Balo comprised large curving timbers of a ship. The protagonists, tenor Ian Storey as Tristan and soprano Elaine McKrill as Isolde, did remarkably well in their punishing and difficult roles. Bass Andrzej Saciuk rose to the occasion as King Mark, and mezzo-soprano Monika Waeckerle was most effective as Brangâne. This was indeed a memorable performance.
Petrarch, the Italian poet and Renaissance humanist, called Genoa “La Superba.” This jewel on the Mediterranean certainly lives up to this appropriate name.