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Saturday, November 28, 2015

Renaissance Cities--Genoa

Palace of Saint George, Genoa,  built in 1260, one of the city's oldest architectural landmarks.
Some streets in Genoa haven't changed
much since the Renaissance.
I've seen wider hallways.
Genoa, Italy, has been nicknamed "The Proud One." Indeed, its landmarks, its architecture, its culture, its food, its art, and a couple rather famous people who were born there, give it a lot to be proud of. Except perhaps for Rome and Naples, Genoa has one of the longest histories of any city on the Italian peninsula. Archaeologists can confidently place the Greeks there as early as the sixth or fifth century, but also suggests the area may have been inhabited by the Etruscans well before that. When an area features a natural harbor like that of Genoa (below), down through the centuries, the real estate around it seldom sees much rest. Its harbor is not as big as the Bay of Naples but some would claim it surpasses that of Naples, which is so large as to provide less shelter from the Mediterranean's fierce, winter storms. In terms of shipping volume, however, Genoa is the largest port in Italy. Thus from its earliest times right up to the present, Genoa has been very much a maritime city, built around trade, commerce, and manufacturing. From its Greek and Roman beginnings, Genoa may not be the Mediterranean's most beautiful city, but it would be hard to overstate its importance during the Italian Renaissance and in the centuries since.

Genoa from the Renaissance to the 19th century.
Columbus by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio, 1520
Like many people reading this, I first heard of Genoa in the third grade while studying world history. I had no idea where it was but that didn't matter much so long as Christopher Columbus knew where it was and how to get back there. Although Columbus didn't sail to the new world from there, he, along with the Italian violinist, and composer, Niccolò Paganini, was born there in 1451. (Paganini was born in 1782.) Unlike most of the other great figures from the Italian Renaissance, Columbus seems to have had more important things to do that sit around being painted. Only one portrait, a 1518 image by Sebastiano del Piombo, titled Portrait of a Man (below, left) is recognized as possibly being an accurate depiction of the Italian sea captain. The second figure (below, right) is far less certain even than that. The portrait purported to be of Columbus (right) by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio (son of Domenico Ghirlandaio) is even more questionable. This portrait was executed in the first half of the sixteenth century, after the death of Columbus in 1506. Ghirlandaio never lived in Spain (or Genoa) and it is highly unlikely he ever met the Admiral.

Maybe, and probably not. There's certainly no similarities between the two.
There's not much of Genoa remaining today that Christopher Columbus would recognize. He'd be familiar with the Palace of Saint George (top), which dates from 1260, also St. Lawrence Cathedral (below), completed in 1118, and the Medieval Gates to the city dating from long before that. Likewise, he might have kept his money in the Bank of Saint George, which dates from 1407 (one of the oldest banks in the world).

It's alright, I guess, if you like stripes.
Genoa's Lanterna lighthouse, 1543.
However most of the architectural landmarks we see today date from the 16th century after Columbus's death. Those would include the Royal Palace of Genoa (below) and the iconic Genoa Lanterna lighthouse (left) which dates from 1543, and the Doge's Palace, parts of which existed in Columbus' time, but which has been added to and remodeled to such as extent as to be largely unrecognizable to the 15th-century seaman. Genoa's other favorite son, Niccolò Paganini, on the other hand, would recognize all these landmarks as well as the 19th century center of the city, the famous Ferrari Plaza (bottom), though it has probably changed a little since his time. The Ferrari Plaza, by the way, is not, a Ferrari dealership, nor a giant parking lot in the center of town reserved exclusively for owners of the iconic Italian sports car. It was named for the Duke of Galliera, Raffaele De Ferrari. I should note, however, that there is only one Ferrari family tree growing in Italy.

Royal Palace, Genoa, mostly dates from the 16th-century Baroque era.
Another item Christopher Columbus would have been sure to recognize was this map of northern Italy (below) from the Renaissance era (in a slightly less modern form, of course). During Columbus' time, and even up until the middle of the 19th century, there was no country called "Italy." Italy was a boot-shaped peninsula jutting out into the Mediterranean. Most of the business end of the boot was controlled by the Kingdom of Naples, which was, at various, times controlled by France, Spain, and a few other European political entities. Then there were the Papal States, a sort of decorative belt running diagonally up across the middle of the boot. North of that were the various combative city states of Sienna, Florence, Venice, Milan, Savoy, Genoa, and a few other smaller ones not worth mentioning. (If their names you wish to know, check out the map below.)

Despite the presence of the various popes in Rome (and sometimes because of them) politically, Italy had been an unholy mess from the fall of the Roman Empire until Garibaldi, Camillo Cavour, Victor Emmanuel II and Giuseppe Mazzini brought them all together during the middle of the 19th century.
If the 16th century saw a period of robust growth for the city of Genoa, it was nothing compared to that which occurred during the 19th century, both before, during, and after Italian unification. Painters and others involved in he fine arts flocked to Genoa as the city blossomed into a haven for intellectuals and free-thinkers. The all-important harbor became a focal point for visiting artists anxious to cash in on the romantic aura of the Italian landscape fad sweeping the continent. No one has ever quite put their finger on the reason for this attraction, or what it was about Italian landscapes which made them any more attractive than those of any other nation. But that didn't stop English artists such as William Haseltine, William Parrot, and John MacWirther all of whom painted romantic vistas of Genoa (below) which Columbus might have recognized, but would probably have found amusing as compared to the down and dirty seaport in which he'd grown up. Perhaps another Englishman, Charles Dickens, who spent a year vacation in the city, said it best: "We could see Genoa before three; and watching it as it gradually developed; its splendid amphitheater, terrace rising above terrace, garden above garden, palace above palace, height upon height, was ample occupation for us, till we ran into the stately harbor." Arriving by ship, the veil of sea haze may have hidden the less attractive aspects of mid-19th century Italian life. Dickens' subsequent impressions are peppered with adjectives like "dirty," "squalid,", "disheartening," and "dismal."

The "romantic" Genoa as seen by British artists during the 1800s.
Genoa's Piazza di Ferrari today.



  1. Great post as always, Jim. This one is especially close to my heart because I stayed in Genoa for a year. Out of my five years stay in Italy, four were spent in Bologna and one in Genoa. I lived in a house that was two minutes from the Palace of Saint George. The photos bring back so many memories. Thank you. :)

  2. Raj--I'm glad I could revive such pleasant memories. I've visited the French Rivera but never the Italian Riviera. I'd love to se Portofino sometime, in that I long ago did a painting of the harbor (from a photo).