GENOA (Genova in Italian) is “the most winding, incoherent of cities, the most entangled topographical ravel in the world”. So said Henry James, and the city – Italy’s sixth largest, and its biggest port – is still marvellously eclectic, vibrant and full of rough-edged style; indeed “La Superba”, as it was known at the height of its powers, boasts more zest and intrigue than all the surrounding coastal resorts put together. Its old town is a dense and fascinating warren of medieval alleyways home to large palazzi built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by Genoa’s wealthy mercantile families and now transformed into museums and art galleries. The tidying-up hasn’t sanitized the old town, however; the core of the city, between the two stations and the waterfront, is dark and slightly menacing, but the overriding impression is of a buzzing hive of activity – food shops nestled in the portals of former palaces, carpenters’ workshops sandwiched between designer furniture outlets, everything surrounded by a crush of people and the squashed vowels of the impenetrable Genoese dialect that has, over the centuries, absorbed elements of Neapolitan, Calabrese and Portuguese. Aside from the cosmopolitan street life, you should seek out the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, the Palazzo Ducale, and the Renaissance palaces of Via Garibaldi which contain the cream of Genoa’s art collections, as well as furniture and decor from the grandest days of the city’s past.
Genoa made its money at sea, through trade, colonial exploitation and piracy. It was one of the four major Italian maritime republics (the others being Venice, Pisa and Amalfi), and a local superpower with its own well-developed system of government that lasted several hundred years. By the thirteenth century, after playing a major part in the Crusades, the Genoese were roaming the Mediterranean, bringing back ideas as well as goods: the city’s architects were using Arab pointed arches a century before the rest of Italy. The San Giorgio banking syndicate effectively controlled the city for much of the fifteenth century, and cold-shouldered Columbus (who had grown up in Genoa) when he sought funding for his voyages. With Spanish backing, he opened up new Atlantic trade routes that ironically would later reduce Genoa to a backwater. Following foreign invasion, in 1768 the Banco di San Giorgio was forced to sell the Genoese colony of Corsica to the French, and a century later, the city became a hotbed of radicalism: Mazzini, one of the main protagonists of the Risorgimento, was born here, and in 1860 Garibaldi set sail for Sicily with his “Thousand” from the city’s harbour. Around the same time, Italy’s industrial revolution began in Genoa, with steelworks and shipyards spreading along the coast. These suffered heavy bombing in World War II, and the subsequent economic decline hobbled Genoa for decades. Things started to look up in the 1990s: state funding to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s 1492 voyage paid to renovate many of the city’s late-Renaissance palaces and the old port area, with Genoa’s most famous son of modern times, Renzo Piano (best known as the co-designer of Paris’s Pompidou Centre), taking a leading role. The results of a twelve-year programme that saw Genoa becoming a European Capital of Culture in 2004 are evident all over the city.