Genoa is proud of its aquarium, the largest one in Europe
Piecesni takes us through the fascinating history of Genoa, once a world center and now definitely on the rebound. Don't miss this article and don't miss this city.
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 is still marvelously eclectic, full of pace and rough-edged style. Sprawled behind the huge port - Italy's largest and an increasingly popular stop off for international cruise liners - is a dense and fascinating warren of medieval alleyways, a district which has more zest than all the coastal resorts put together.
Genoa made its money at sea, through trade, colonial exploitation and piracy. By the thirteenth century, on the heels of a major role 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 of exploration. With Spanish backing, he opened up new Atlantic trade routes which ironically reduced Genova La Superba ("the proud") 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 some 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 city was the focus of world attention for the G8 summit in July 2001 ( www.genoa-g8.it ), an event which marked a L90 billion programme to prepare for a well-earned role as European Capital of Culture in 2004.
The tidying-up hasn't sanitized the old town, however; the core of the city, between the two stations and the waterfront, is still dark and slightly threatening. But despite the sleaze, 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 with its fabulous treasury, small medieval churches such as San Donato and Santa Maria di Castello , and the Renaissance palazzi that contain Genoa's art collections and furniture and decor from the grandest days of the city's illustrious past.
Genoa's atmospheric Old Town spreads outwards from the port in a confusion of tiny alleyways (caruggi ), bordered by Via Gramsci along the waterfront and by Via Balbi and Via Garibaldi to the north. The caruggi are lined with high buildings, usually six or seven stories, set very close together. Tiny grocers, textile workshops and bakeries jostle for position with boutiques, design outlets and goldsmiths amidst a flurry of shouts, smells and scrawny cats. Not for nothing is Genoa the only European city to be mentioned in the Arabian Nights.
The cramped layout of the area reflects its medieval politics. Around the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the city's principal families - Doria, Spinola, Grimaldi and Fieschi - marked out certain streets and squares as their territory, even extending their domains to include churches: to pray in someone else's chapel was to risk being stabbed in the back. New buildings on each family's patch had to be slotted in wherever they could, resulting in a maze of crooked alleyways that was the battleground of dynastic feuds which lasted well into the eighteenth century. Genoa has, however, remained relatively free of fire, not least because each building's kitchens were invariably placed on the topmost story.
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