Italy's Greatest Seaport

The glory that was Genoa is enchanting still

GENOA has been badly neglected by tourism in the twentieth century, though it was for a thousand years one of the two great Italian trade and banking ports in the Mediterranean, the other being Venice. Before our era Genoa was celebrated by such giants of art and literature as Peter Paul Rubens, Gustave Flaubert, Henry James, and Joseph Conrad. It long maintained close relations with the Low Countries, whose painters, ranging from Rogier van der Weyden to Anthony Van Dyck, worked in Genoa for years on end. When the great empires of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries directed Europe's attention to more-distant regions of the world, Genoa, long Venice's rival for dominance of Mediterranean trade, diminished in world importance. Venice, floating at the head of the Adriatic, continued to brandish its glories for the traveler, while Genoa receded, somewhat like Marseilles. In the nineteenth century it became the port of entry for the rising industries of Turin and Milan, but Italy's unfortunate choice of sides in the Second World War resulted in a horrid vengeance on the city, for the British bombed the port to keep German ships from supplying Nazi military efforts, and the Germans held on to it till the very end. The city had a lot to recover from, and its restoration is even now not quite complete. Lately I was lucky enough to spend a month nearby; with increasing pleasure on each daily excursion, I explored Genoa at leisure. It's a marvel.
Genoa is suitable for travelers who are tired of finding themselves in a crowd of people very much like themselves. Its Mediterranean microclimate makes it a delicious destination in the spring or fall, when other regions of Italy, even some of those to the south, may prove dubious. Its lush, palm-tree-studded, bougainvillea-swathed surroundings -- Ventimiglia and the French Riviera to the west; Rapallo, Portofino, and the Cinque Terre to the east -- are not only enticing and varied but lend themselves to easy access by inexpensive public transportation. For those, like me, who find crowds of fellow tourists a barrier to understanding, the city itself is a wonderful place in which to take your mind on a walk. The immense and heavily trafficked seaport is only now beginning once again to be visited by cruise ships from outside Italy. Genoa has been working at the art of urban life for a couple of thousand years, but its magic for me is the medieval immediacy that is perpetuated in its back streets, in a style that can hardly be found anywhere else on such a scale. When I visited its museums and churches, last fall, I found myself nearly alone.

THE city is built on abrupt slopes that rise steeply from sea level, after a pause above the shoreline, to considerable heights not very distant from the coast. Ancient fortifications atop the hills were erected long ago to defend against the inboard depredations of the Lombards and others. When you look at Genoa from above, it resembles, as the Genoa native Eugenio Montale once wrote, "a snake who has swallowed a rabbit whole, and is unable to digest it." The principal east-west streets extend at narrow intervals for miles along the shoreline. Maps severely foreshorten the north-south distances: a street that looks very close to its neighbor may in fact lie thirty feet above it and peer over its head. The general prosperity of the city tends to rise with the altitude of the neighborhood, so that the richest quarters stand highest on the hills -- or second-highest. The rich bourgeoisie of Genoa, and there are plenty of them, take their pleasure in districts high enough above the city to admit a great view of the sea but nearly close enough to downtown to let a person lob a banana into one of the two train stations.

If you were to stand on a terrace up there on a brilliantly clear day, you might see Corsica, a former Genoese possession, far off on the southern horizon. Closer in and still southward you would see a vast port unfolding beneath and straight ahead, the oldest harbor innermost, the outer, broader port crowded with a number of white ocean ferries at their piers, and marine-freight traffic threading its self-absorbed way into and out of the Ligurian Sea between two outspread arms of land. (If shipping interests you, as it does me, you might think of taking a forty-five-minute harbor cruise, during which an Italian guide will tell you exactly what kind of freight is shipped to or from each pier; which ships carry wine, vegetable oil, machine parts, automobiles, or limestone, to which ports; when the ships will depart; and what -- pineapples, coal, petroleum, coffee -- they will carry back.) Just beyond the ancient Lanterna, a tower as familiar to the Genoese as the Statue of Liberty is to New Yorkers, lie industrial port facilities, the smoke of power plants and oil refineries, and the buzz and bustle of Genoa's nearby airport.

In that terrace view the old city, looking very jammed up indeed, lies at one's feet. In the middle distance is the central business district; off to the left are the palace of the dukes of Genoa (now a center for art exhibitions and lectures) and the opera house, the restored nineteenth-century Teatro Carlo Felice. Straight ahead and closer is the great Strada Nuova (modern name: Via Garibaldi), built up during Shakespeare's lifetime for conspicuous display by the opulent bankers of the sixteenth century; here the gate of each residence offers a gaudy challenge to the one across the street -- architecture that Rubens celebrated in a book depicting the great palaces of Genoa that he published in 1607. Next, beyond the Renaissance district and a little to the right, sloping down to the waterfront, jut the tops of the old six- and seven-story palazzi that make up medieval Genoa, a rabbit warren of streets and alleyways, entrances, shops, memorials, chapels, and cubbyholes. The medieval district approaches the edge of the inner harbor and then opens out to turn the harbor view over to the banking houses, the port frontage called the Ripa, and the piers that have allowed inviting opportunities for modern architects and planners to unleash the forces of the contemporary city. Not all those opportunities have yet been accepted.

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Peter Davison was The Atlantic's longtime poetry editor.

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