GENOA, Italy — I have heard that the best way to approach this great city is in winter by train from the gloomy, chilling lands on the other side of the mountains. Suddenly the train emerges from tunnels into glorious Liguria, where boxes of geraniums are still in bloom, where the sun is a bright spot in the gray European winter.
“In winter, we have a lot of weekend visitors from Milan,” a guide tells me. “Their winter is so terrible, and they come here to see the sun. We have the sun all year.”
Others have recommended arriving by cruise ship to this port, from which many Italians emigrated to North and South America before the days of trans-Atlantic air service. This is the best way for Genoa and the famous nearby Riviera towns to be seen, as they cling to cliffs and the sides of hills and mountains and rise from the narrow land between sea and mountain.
So what am I doing on a commuter-type Alitalia aircraft from Milan? Well, it was an easy connection from Washington to Milan to Genoa. We fly over the inland Ligurian villages and valleys beyond the coastal range, and then we are over the Ligurian Sea, headed for a runway that seems to run into the sea.
I look at the rippled water from the plane and imagine I am hearing the haunting music that introduces Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra,” his opera about the first doge of Genoa.
A friend advised that I not come here. “It is such a gray city,” he said. “I did not stay long.”
True, Genoa is gray if one looks at the city from above and sees all the slate roofs; this is not a city roofed in red tiles. The preferred building stones surviving so well from the medieval and Renaissance periods are white marble and black slate, often used in horizontal bands, such as in the San Lorenzo Cathedral, the Church of San Matteo and many other buildings, from ground to sky.
The richness of Genoa is inside these buildings, where the great banking families showed off their wealth in their private palaces. On the facades of many buildings, from ordinary to grand, frescoes bring a bright touch to complement the walls’ subtle painted colors. Genoa has been through poor times and has been invaded and occupied by foreign forces, but it has flourished and, for a time, rivaled Venice — La Superba against the Adriatic’s La Serenissima. Genoa earlier defeated Pisa for naval supremacy in the Ligurian Sea.
Genoa was one of the principal bankers for the Spanish Empire in the New World. Genoese ships waited in Spanish harbors for the galleons to return from the New World for Genoa’s share of gold and silver. Its generous share was for loans and interest, and it was collected without even seeing Spain. It was said that silver was born in the New World and died in Genoa.
The Republic of Genoa built ships for Spain and rented it ships and troops as well as commanding ships in battles for Spain. Genoa’s most famous son — after Columbus — was the great sea admiral Andrea Doria, who happened to be a member of one of the city’s most illustrious families.
The Genoese flag, the red cross of St. George on a white background, was so feared in the western Mediterranean that, so the story goes in Genoa, officials of the republic sold England the right to use the flag, which now is incorporated with the cross of St. Andrew in the British banner.
A guide told me that a rival family conspired to assassinate one of the Dorias, but the plot was foiled, after which the Dorias and their allies destroyed all but one of the plotting family’s palaces.
The wealthy families had several palaces. The Dorias had an enclave in Genoa’s Piazza San Matteo. The centerpiece is the Church of San Matteo, founded in 1125 by Marino Doria but remodeled into the Gothic style in 1278 with horizontal bands of black and white stone on the exterior.
The church, which contains Doria tombs, is surrounded by the 13th-century Palace of Branca Doria; the Palace of Andrea Doria (1468) and the Palace of Lamba Doria. Several blocks away are the palaces of Vincenzo Imperiale and Ottavio Imperiale, from another of Genoa’s illustrious families. The Dorias also had palaces at other sites in the city.
The palaces of Genoa are built in such a grand style that often there are two main floors — what the Italians call a “piano nobile.” Royalty and ambassadors would be received on the first piano nobile — our second floor — and friends and associates were greeted on the second. The ceilings, sometimes 15 and 20 feet above the marble floors, were part of the grandeur and also meant there was more wall space to be decorated, more yards of the locally made sumptuous silks to hang by the windows.
These grand floors were where the Genoese could show off their wealth in paintings, furniture, opulence in gold and silver, lovely marble floors in geometric patterns and trompe l’oeil paintings on walls and ceilings.
Genoa was such an important market for the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens that every family had to have one of its members’ portraits painted by the famous artist — or by his great pupil and artist, Anthony Van Dyke, who was in Genoa in the 1620s. Many of these artists’ full-length portraits remain in Genoa in the collections of families such as the Balbi, Doria, Durazzo and Grimaldi, or in museums, but others have found homes in other prestigious places.
The collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington include Van Dyke’s 1623 portrait of Marchesa Elena Grimaldi and Rubens’ 1606 portrait of the Marchesa Brigida Spinola Doria. Both richly mirror their times.
The latter marchesa’s name involves two great Genoese families. The Palazzo Spinola, now a national gallery that preserves the furniture and kitchen as well as the art, was built in 1593 for Francesco Grimaldi but later passed into the Pallavicini, Doria and Fieschi families before becoming a Spinola property until it was donated to the state as a museum, Galleria Spinola.
Many of these same family names are connected with the palazzi on one of the world’s grand streets, the Strada Nova, now called via Garibaldi. These buildings so impressed Rubens that he made drawings of them and took the drawings home to Antwerp, Belgium, where wealthy families built homes emulating the Genoese style.
When these palazzi were built in the 16th century, sometimes called the “Genoese century,” Genoa was changing from a commune to a republic, becoming truly wealthy and one of the major cities of Europe.
The Palazzo Carrega Cataldi on via Garibaldi is now home of Genoa’s Chamber of Commerce. Of great interest here is the Gilded Gallery, whose walls and panels are mirrored with gold frames and festooned with designs in gold. More gilding passes over the ceiling in curlicues and figures. Even the mirror-topped table that seats about 20 has some gold ornamentation crossing its top. The gilding was created in the 1740s but has been re-created in restoration.
The palace was bought by Tobia Pallavicino, who with a brother controlled the importation of alum, which was essential for fixing dyes in Genoa’s textile industry — jeans, a corruption of the French name for Genoa, were created here. Pallavicino died in 1581 and left to his sons what was one of Genoa’s greatest fortunes at that time.
The nine palaces of via Garibaldi include two museums, the Palazzo Bianco and Palazzo Rosso (the white and red palaces). In Palazzo Rosso, visitors may find works of Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Van Dyke, Durer, Ribera and Murillo. Across the street in Palazzo Bianco hang works of Bruegel, Cranach the Elder, Rubens, Van Dyke, Ruysdael, Veronese, Filippino Lippi, Caravaggio and a portrait of Andrea Doria, looking proud and important while holding a bag of money.
These palaces were built outside the old part of the city and inspired many other buildings in the area. A guide tells me a story about Queen Elizabeth II coming here to see the collection of a nobleman because, she said, she had to visit the only person in the world who had more paintings by Caneletto — famous in particular for views of Venice and London — than she had in her collection.
The story continues that the host offered the queen coffee or tea, and although she prefers tea, she in deference asked for coffee because she knew that several Genoese fortunes come from coffee plantations in Brazil. True or not, it is a good story — and it certainly could have happened in Genoa.
Living was grand on via Garibaldi and also in the palaces in the old medieval part of the city — one of the largest medieval enclaves surviving in Europe. The alleylike streets are very narrow but still house sumptuous palaces. The fronts of some of these places were redone into what the Genoese call “barochetto,” in which the decorations are a lighter, refined interpretation of the baroque.
A short walk from the palaces of via Garibaldi, down where the narrow streets begin, is the dilapidated home of Simon Boccanegra, which needs help. It is more intact than what remains of a building being passed off as Columbus’ home.
These narrow streets are called “carruggi.” The old buildings along them are homes for shops, restaurants, apartments and offices. In the carrugi, lined with buildings of about five stories, I wonder if the sun ever shines on the pavement.
Near the Piazza San Lorenzo, one of the carruggi is a few feet wider than others nearby. It was made so, a guide says, because an important family wanted to make their way in more style from their palace to the cathedral. The route was too narrow for someone of their stature.
In many of the old buildings along the carruggi, architectural elements from previous centuries are visible occasionally in the facades. The third floor of an exterior may reveal an arch of stone or part of an arch, sometimes in the familiar bands of white marble and black slate. The columns of a balcony or windows may still show in another building from medieval times. An old cloister near the cathedral once was used as a parking lot for garbage trucks.
Genoa fell on hard times after industrialization, and factories spread inland to Milan and Turin. At one time, Genoa and Marseille, France, were the two principal ports in the western Mediterranean.
Teatro Carlo Felice, the Genoa opera house, was so damaged from World War II bombing that it could not be used. Finally, it was restored in a surge of city improvements in the early 1990s. Even then, some of the Genoese were disappointed because the interior of the opera house was not as grand as they had anticipated — the walls looked like exteriors of stone buildings. After they read about the acoustics being among the best in Italy, they warmed to the opera’s new house.
The opera stage is also home to concerts and dance and the Paganiniana, an international competition named for Genoa’s celebrated native son, violinist Niccolo Paganini, who died in 1840.
The carruggi area is surrounded by later buildings, but it extends to the waterfront, where shoppers can walk under stone arcades in the quest of clothing, luggage, vegetables, meats and fruits, and old coffee and pastry establishments, such as Pietro Romanengo, where candied fruit and chocolates are the well-known specialties.
Nearby is a tripperia, where tripe broth long was served as a breakfast food to Genoans. Other interesting shops, some with fronts designed in the liberty style popular in the 19th century, specialize in spices, threads and ribbons, handmade shirts, hats, shoes, soaps and scents, pastries, leather goods, chocolates, ice cream, laces — whatever may be needed.
The old buildings above the arcades have excellent views of the old harbor, interrupted only by the Strada Sopraelevata Aldo Moro, the busy and noisy elevated freeway that carries major traffic along the harbor area.
PALAZZO SAN GIORGIO
The elevated road probably is better than having all that traffic buzzing between the city and the harbor, and relocating it would be very expensive — either beneath the harbor or along the mountain behind Genoa. One significant building remains near the highway, though, splendidly restored with a painted facade. This is the Palazzo San Giorgio, where the Banco di San Giorgio became a very powerful European credit institution.
It was built in 1260 on the orders of Simon Boccanegra. Port officials were operating in the palace as early as 1281; the bank was established in 1451. Part of the building, now operated by the port authority, is a museum.
Another important banking building nearby in the Piazza Banchi — which may be a source of the word “bank” — is the 16th-century Church of St. Peter in Banchi, which dates from 862 as a church then outside the city. It was almost destroyed by fire in 1398.
The Loggia dei Mercanti, also in Piazza Banchi but from the 16th century, is built at the city’s centuries-old site for trading and was the first home of Genoa’s stock exchange.
Between the sea and the elevated highway are newer attractions offered by Genoa. These include an amazing Aquarium of Geneva — and I am not a fan of aquariums, usually — docks for small tour boats, shops, restaurants and the wonderful new Galata Museum of the Sea near the old dockyards area.
Credit architect and native son Renzo Piano for the aquarium; the Bolla, a glass globe enclosing a tropical environment; and the modern centerpiece of the harbor, the Bigo, a cluster of large elongated poles that resemble ships’ cranes, “bigo” being the old Genoese word for crane. Some of the poles hold up the tentlike white roof covering a public area below; others lift a cable car upward for a view of the city and harbor. The Bigo rises from a platform in the water in the city’s Ancient Port, older even than the basin of the Old Port.
For 2004, Genoa was designated a European Capital of Culture, a well-deserved title — and still deserved. From old to new, Genoa should no longer be thought of as a gray city — except for its slate roofs — but as a vibrant city filled with treasures to behold, delicious food, and with plenty of activities to keep young and old pleasantly occupied.