Back to Home
Email this Article ARCHIVES Back to newsletter
A Cultural European city --Modern and Historical -- the richness of which opens up behind Normand ramparts and Medieval walls, inside Renaissance churches, around every street corner, And spills on the splendid Italian Riviera
In search of history, sights and food.
By Simone Zarmati Diament
The airplane made a wide loop over the deep blue expanse of the Mediterranean, giving passengers a spectacular view of the Ligurian coast before descending slowly towards the narrow airstrip of the Cristoforo Colombo Airport, Genoa's small international airport nestled at the foot of the Apenines.
I hadn't returned to Genoa since I was a girl, stopping there en route to Alexandria, Egypt, and Haifa, Israel. Or disembarking there after 16 days at sea on the great ocean liner Leonardo Da Vinci from Buenos Aires, Argentina! (now at an exhibition at the Museum of Navigation and Sea, Porto Antico, tel: 0039-010-557-4004, till December 8, 2004) and the busy sea port, the city with its museums, its shopping, its restaurants and even its spectacular Campo Santo were only a stopover for other destinations. I had never thought of Genoa as a vacation destination until 2004, when it became one of Europe's two capitals of culture together with Lille, in France.
The cultural events this year focused on the Genovese tradition of "voyage" and the ensuing influences this city had on everything, from trade and art to culture and food, in Europe and around the world. And I reveled in my new understanding of the importance of Genoa in the world, and not just because Christopher Columbus was born there or because Genovese pesto is eaten all over the world, or because the typical 'torta pasqualina' is a regular staple in every Argentinian household.
Genoa, a town built on hills and at different levels, as I remembered it, was shy, understated and proud of its rich mercantile past, but somehow lost and neglected between the blue of the sea and the blue of the sky. Until WWII, Genoa was a town rich in industry and commerce that gradually lost its industry and like many middle-sized Italian towns suffered a dwindling population.
What I encountered was the new Genoa, its medieval city center, its façades and museums being intensively renovated, with world class exhibitions attracting tourists from all over the world, a city proud of its future as a crossroad of culture and history.
The Old Port as I knew it, with its 12th century Light House, and is now home to Genoa's aquarium, one of the most important in Europe with exhibitions of hundreds of species and a top tourist attraction ( www.acquariodigenova.it) together with the futuristic Bolla, a hothouse for tropical and rainforest plants, and the nearby docks and warehouses were redesigned by architect Renzo Piano in 1992, to gentrify the area with shops, restaurants, concert arena, (very much like New York's South Street Sea Port) and Città dei Bambini, a hands-on children's museum.
The focus of the city was and still is Piazza de Ferrari with its myriad jets of water, a fountain created in honor of the G8 some years ago. It is flanked on one side by the Palazzo Ducale, an imposing building once belonging to the Doges of Genoa, and now a museum with a façade which is a masterpiece of trompe l'oeil art dating from the Renaissance, giving the illusion of depth and perspective.
On the other side, is Matteotti Square and the Church of Jesus, itself an important work of art built on a 6th century church and rebuilt by the Palavicini family in the 16th century. It is a magnificent church, actually the most opulent of all the churches in Genoa, with intricate patterns of inlaid marble: green, black, white, pink, veined, yellow, all from Liguria. Inside, there are paintings by Rubens, Van Dyck; Joos Van Cleeve; baroque paintings by Guido Reni (17th Century); and other painters who have left their mark in the city; splendid coats of arms, sculptures…
On the north side of Piazza de Ferrari is the Theater and Opera House Carlo Felice which was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt to lead into the Mazzini Gallery, a covered art nouveau mall filled with designer stores, coffee shops, parallel to posh Via Roma. This year, its program ranges from opera to concerts and ballets ( www.carlofelice.it ).
Piazza Ferrari opens up into two wide arteries for serious shopping: Via Roma, and Via XX di Settembre, with sidewalks under arcades that are works of art, shiny terrazzo floors studded with mosaics.
Genoa is one of the largest medieval towns in Europe.
Traditionally, there was no King in Genoa. Like Venice, it was an independent Republic that elected its Leader of the People already in the 11th and 12th century. When in 1339, the first Doge, Simon Boccanegra, was elected, he was not the scion of a noble family. That democracy enabled the city to evolve into one of the richest and most powerful republics during the Renaissance.
You can't miss seeing the Red Cross:emblem of Genoa and the flag of a the ancient republic of Genoa when you enter the San Lorenzo Cathedral, on Piazza San Lorenzo, the black and white 12th century church built on an earlier church from the 10th century, marble-studded with stones of the region and guarded by medieval lions and gargoyles. Black and white striped façades of marble and slate stone were a privilege of the nobility, a distinctive style also seen in Sienna and Pisa, used in churches and private palaces.
Inside the Cathedral, you can see a Renaissance Chapel adorned with works by Luca Cambiaso and frescoes by Lazaro Tavarone depicting the Last Supper; and San Lorenzo being "grilled" for being a socialist (that's where the expression grilled comes from. They actually placed the victim on a grill, very much like a BBQ, over flames till he talked, or admitted to his sins.) Magnificent stained glass with Genoa's four patron saints: St. John, St. George, St.Lorenzo and St. Bernhard illuminate the dark nave and the imposing 16th century organ, carved in wood and painted like a triptych.
We stayed at the Hotel Locanda Palazzo Cicala, an atypical hotel that combines the charms of a 17th century palace with modern comfort and a minimalist décor; from which we could walk through the intricate maze of narrow streets or carrugi, some dating from the 12th century, all safe to walk at all hours of the day and night. Via Macelli di Soziglia, Via di Prè, Via di Scuregna, are constricted alleys with clothes hung out to dry, restaurants, night clubs and shops leading to San Matteo Square, the Doria family headquarters; a piazza enclosed by palaces with the traditional black and white façades, loggias, cloisters, all belonging to members of the Doria dynasty: rich merchants and seafaring officials in the mercantile navy.
Andrea Doria is an important figure in Genoa's history. This patriarch, who died at the ripe age of 92, was still an active seafaring admiral at the age of 82 is the only member of his family actually buried in a crypt under the San Matteo Church, a medieval construction renovated by the Doria clan during the Renaissance and mentioned by the 16th century writer Vassari as a Jewel of Art. The rest of the family is buried in San Fruttuoso, an secluded abbey south of Portofino.
The ramparts of the old town still stand, flying the flags of the city. The tower, a city gate from the 12th century, (1155) Normand-style with pointed arches, is one of the earliest city turrets still standing in Europe.
Right outside the town walls on Dante Square, surrounded by ageless olive trees, stands the house where Christopher Columbus is said to have lived until he was in his 20's. If you pay about $5, you can go into a very small house supposedly rented by the Colombo family by Mr.Fieschi, the landlord. The original lease contract can be seen, in Latin, on the door. There is still a Janus Door, the two-faced god worshipped by actors, but also used to ward off evil foreigners.
Genoa's claim to fame can't compete with other more famous cities in Italy. Other than Columbus, Paganini, (for the first time his violin, a Guarneri del Gesù from 1743, will be on display along with other Paganini memorabilia at Teatro Carlo Felice, this fall) and the mothers of Frank Sinatra and Picasso, there are few famous artists: Piola (Domenico Piola (1627 -1703) can be credited with studies in perspective, a genre initiated by Castello in 1659), Sivori, Luca Cambiazzo…. Byron had a villa in Albaro, so did Charles Dickens….
Genoa's rich merchant bourgeoisie and bankers preferred to import their artists from other towns and other countries, and hesitated to invest their money in doubtful ventures such as Columbus' . Patrons of the arts , they gave Rubens and Van Dyck an opportunity to paint and leave a legacy that you can see in the sumptuous homes lining up Via Garibaldi which are now banks and offices, except for three which have been turned into museums. The Palazzo Rosso, with its collection of 17th and 18th century art; Palazzo Biancho with its Renaissance and Baroque collections; and the Palazzo Tursi , also the City Hall, with its gorgeous courtyard and the Nymphaeum, a charming fountain built by Domenico Parcoli on drawings by Rubens in 1711. It is framed by two gigantic tritons adorning the rear walls with the myth of the falling of Phaeton, a grotto like fountain (the water flow comes down from the hill of Castelletto) with stalagmites forming curious shapes. All tickets are $4, and museums are all closed on Mondays.
Since the city is built on hills and the neighborhoods are terraced, there are elevators and cable cars. When on Via Garibaldi you can take an elevator to the more modern neighborhoods perched on the hills with wide avenues and a spectacular view from everywhere you look. It is worth EU 1, and you shouldn't miss the opportunity to have a bird's eye view of the entire city.
(This is the second story of the series on Genoa by Simone Zarmati Diament. In our next issue, Genoa Part III will give you an insight on restaurants and the Italian Riviera. GENOA Part I* Pra', the Pesto Capital of Italy www.southfloridagourmet.com/newsite/archives/travel10182004.html)