Genoa is often overlooked by visitors to Italy in favour of the more famous cities of Rome, Venice and Florance. But this ancient port nestled between the Ligurian mountains and the sea on the Italian riviera has a unique history and beauty. I was lucky enough to be taken on a tour of the city by local friends who regaled us with stories of Genoa’s past. Here are a few of my favourites!
These stories give you a glimpse into the history of Genoa and how it looks today. But more than that, it tells you about the character of the Genoan people who built and still live in this city today. Lots of inspiration for writers!
The Durazzo Family – From Slaves to Nobles
Genoan people value hard work and people who do a good job. There is no better example of this than the history of the Durazzo family, who were one of the most powerful families in Genoa in the eighteenth century. But this family came from very humble origins.
The first head of the family arrived in Genoa a slave, taken from his native city of Durrës in Albania. His intelligence was recognised and he was eventually given his freedom. As slaves didn’t have surnames, he took the name of his home city. The Durazzo family became silk merchants and over just a few generations rose to the nobility. Nine members of the family took the title of ‘doge’ – the elected head of state for the Republic of Genoa.
The Durazzo family bought the Palazzo Reale (left) in 1677. It’s now a museum, but the rooms lavishly decorated by the Durazzos are still there. Don’t miss the Galleria degli Specchi (Hall of Mirrors).
Andrea Doria – Genoa’s Prodigal Son
Christopher Columbus must top the list of Genoa’s most famous sons. But his contemporary, Andrea Doria is surely not far behind. Although he was descended from an ancient Genoese noble family, Andrea was born into relative obscurity at Ognelia (a Ligurian port to the west of Genoa) where both his parents died when he was a young boy.
Doria became a mercenary – a soldier of fortune – and served under various Italian princes. He became a great naval commander and took command of the Genoese fleet in the early sixteenth century to wage war on pirates in the Mediterranean. A true mercenary, Andrea Doria used his skills for material gain, selling his ships to the highest bidder.
But he was also devoted to Genoa, ultimately liberating the city from the French and reorganising the system of government to a stable oligarchy. Although he always refused the title of “doge”, some say Doria ruled Genoa under a virtual dictatorship. But the stability he created led to Genoa’s renaissance period during which many of the beautiful and famous palaces you see today were built.
You can visit Andrea Doria’s palace – the Villa del Principe – which is now a museum with beautiful gardens.
The Building of Via Garibaldi
Is there an Italian city that doesn’t have a ‘via Garibaldi’, I wonder? The story of how Genoa’s via Garibaldi came to be built was one of my favourite tales. It’s ironic and truly reflects Genoan’s attitude to wealth!
Before it was transformed into the wealthiest street in Genoa, via Montalbano (as via Garibaldi was once called) was one of the rougher parts of town. Prostitutes plied their trade at a number of public houses, overlooked by a monastery. The head of the monastery repeatedly complained to the Doge that the women were a temptation to the young monks and asked for them to be removed. But the Doge at the time was happy enough with the taxes the prostitutes were paying to ignore the please of the monastery.
But by the mid-sixteenth century, the rich families of Genoa became tempted by the cheap, flat land of via Montalbano. They stated it was immoral for prostitutes to practice their trade in front of the monastery and passed a law forcing the prostitutes to move out of the area. However, the monks didn’t get the last laugh as they were moved on too and the monastery demolished to make way for the palaces.
Which just proves the saying, “be careful what you ask for …”
Via Garibaldi is an explorer’s delight. Although many of the palaces are now used by banks or other institutions, a peak through the doors allows you to image how the noble families of Genoa lived.
Why What Looks Like Stone, May Not Be Stone
Look at that nice stone facade. Oh, wait …
The people of Genoa are known for being pragmatic and ‘tight’ with their money. (So any Scots or Yorkshire folk will feel right at home ;-)) Back in the renaissance, external decoration with stone and marble was considered too costly. Instead the Genovease painted the outside of their homes and palaces to look ornately decorated. With carved arches, balustrades, pillars and even windows and doors painted on to the exterior, the painters of the time were experts at making you see what the owners wanted you to see.
These buildings can still trick your eyes today. You have to get right up close to a building before you can tell whether the intricate carvings and sculpted marble columns are real stone or just an illusion.
The same techniques were used inside palaces and churches to create a greater feeling of space. For example, domes were painted on the low, flat ceiling of a small church hidden in the city centre. It took a good five minutes of looking for me to convince myself that the ceiling wasn’t curved up.
The Grilled Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence
The Cattedrale di S. Lorenzo (Cathedral of Saint Lawrence) is one of Genoa’s must-see attractions. It’s the most significant example of the black-and-white striped architecture that you can find scattered across Liguria and has had it’s fair share of close escapes with destruction. The amour-piercing shell that landed in the nave (but failed to detonate) during World War II is still there today.
Saint Lawrence himself wasn’t so lucky. Reputedly roasted alive in punishment for distributing the wealth of the Church to the poor, legend has it that after some time on the gridiron, he cheerly suggested that they turn him over to make sure he’d be thoroughly cooked.
But there isn’t a better place to have a patron saint of cooks. From the classic trofie al pesto (trust me, you haven’t tasted proper pesto if you haven’t been to Genoa), crispy focaccia and farinata to the creamy semifreddo (if you like gelato, go to Capriccio Gelateria), there is no shortage of great food in Genoa.
For updates on my books, writing inspiration and future travel adventures, sign up to my Readers’ Club