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.

The history of the inner-harbor waterfront is too complex to describe here, but it was from this shore that Crusaders embarked to free Jerusalem from the infidel, and from here the Genoese sent slave-powered galleys to the great naval battle of Lepanto, in 1571, to defend Europe from the perceived threat of the Turks (and to take many of them as slaves). Above the immediate waterfront the principal streets are studded with a wide variety of shops, selling goods ranging from electric shavers to garish women's underwear to upscale men's hats. (I chose a jaunty green number alla moda bersagliera, and left the apparent bargains in electric clippers, with their Italian wiring, to the Italians.) At right angles to the east-west streets, the north-south carruggi (narrow alleyways that run downhill toward the water) seem to shelter rather too many lingering figures, the males wary and slightly menacing, the apparently idle females strolling slowly in skirts too short. I watched one of these women reach over to a female companion and undo two buttons on her blouse, to encourage business.

Higher up the hillside (take the wider streets rather than the carruggi) you may find your way to gems of Genoese architecture and sculpture. The most ancient church in Genoa, Santa Maria di Castello, is built in a cluster of cloisters, side chapels, and inner gardens on the site of Roman fortifications and of a medieval castle that guarded the harbor. On the Piazza San Matteo the great Doria family of Genoa built palaces, striped in black and white stone, around a neatly proportioned square, so that they might gaze into their neighboring cousins' eyes. And the museum at the old church of Sant' Agostino houses, and charmingly displays, the most impressive concentration of Italian medieval sculpture I have seen anywhere. A special delight is the 1980s School of Architecture of the University of Genoa, foresightedly planted in the center of a run-down neighborhood to help rehabilitate it. The school incorporates a variety of the oldest ruins in the city, on seven or eight levels of terraces rising above the harbor to a rooftop garden, which yields the most impressive of all views of both the port and the surrounding hills. Be sure to get there during class hours, because the gate is closed on weekends. The students won't be distracted by your visit, engaged as they are in companionship and flirtation.

Looking down from the School of Architecture, you would understand why Genoa is not by any stretch a city imprisoned by its complicated past. Along the waterfront, between the water and the Ripa, modern architects and planners have been devising schemes to make the port a place for pleasure. Renzo Piano's Bigo, a white structure composed of eight long booms (one of which supports a glittering world's-fair-style elevator), is flanked on the water side by an ice rink and on the other side by the Palazzo San Giorgio. Across the docks from the Bigo stands a huge and gorgeous aquarium, as charmingly organized as any I have seen, with explanatory signs in English as well as Italian, built by Piano in collaboration with Cambridge Seven, of Massachusetts. Back up the hill, in the Piazza De Ferrari, behind the Teatro Carlo Felice, rises the somewhat oversized and self-promoting mass of Aldo Rossi's blocky, blotchy addition to it. In this and other Genoese piazzas you will encounter statues of Christopher Columbus or Giuseppe Verdi -- or melodramatic ones of Victor Emmanuel II -- that look as though they were commissioned, as models, by Saul Steinberg. In the Piazza Corvetto, among the most tolerable modern piazzas, look for a deft and elegant hotel, one of the Jolly chain. Just off Via XX Settembre is the Piazza Colombo, and near it the marvelous indoor food market of the Mercato Orientale. Restaurants, large and small, offer the visitor lovely dishes such as trofie al pesto, the famous Genoese primo piatto that combines fragments of fresh pasta, potatoes, string beans, and pesto, and a fritto misto di pesce that melts in your mouth. I have eaten the best tiramisù of my life in Genoa. And almond ice cream.

THE wines that come from the Ligurian hillsides, the local olive oil, and the bewildering variety of Mediterranean fish and shellfish delight not only the palate but the eye. It may at first seem odd that the Genoese cuisine tends, more than others, to bring dishes to the table that display the colors of the Italian flag -- red, green, and white -- until one remembers that above all other cities, Genoa cradled Italian nationalism, nurturing the Giuseppes Mazzini and Garibaldi, who, with Conte Camillo Benso di Cavour, were the heroic three of the Risorgimento that prepared the way for Italian unity in the nineteenth century. The patriotic fervor reminds travelers that cities exist not just to visit but to live -- or to die -- in. One of the most striking sights of Genoa is the nineteenth-century cemetery of Staglieno, elevated in a valley northeast of the center. This is one of the great burial places in Europe, a vast national mausoleum as well as the patriotic cemetery of the region.

On a rainy afternoon I took a taxi and visited Staglieno, pacing my way along long corridors that ascended by ramps and staircases through a forest of funerary marble sculpture toward the summit of a hillside, where, beyond a dark grove of cypresses, I found the grave of Mazzini, with a generous Doric façade that seems to bulge out of the rock of the hill and stand there for all the idealism in Italian political life. Behind the tomb lies a vale where some of Garibaldi's "thousand" have been buried, companions in the struggle for Italian independence and unity. From this vantage the cemetery stretches out in all directions, behind and below, marble statues trying on every conceivable variation in the stonecutter's repertory. Just below Mazzini a little girl in bronze carries a bronze life preserver, the memorial to a swimming disaster in 1921. Farther down, as I was making my way out of the cemetery, a strangely familiar object caught my eye. It was a golden football helmet, American-style, face guard and all, set on top of the black-marble reclining monument to a young man who died in 1984 and whose photo, showing him in a football jersey carrying the number 41, was displayed beside the helmet, with no further information as to his fate. Closer to the entrance is a small Jewish cemetery that is badly overgrown -- testimony to a sad story from Genoa's past. The long German occupation of the city left it with only a tiny Jewish population to pay heed to the departed dead. Adjacent is a group of particularly histrionic statues commemorating the sacrifices that Italian military men have made pro patria. Some of history's ironies remain standing.

GENOA'S tortuous past reflects all sorts of conflict, but as every resident of Liguria knows, physically as well as metaphorically the road to survival leads uphill. The steepness of Genoa's hillsides, and those of other Ligurian destinations, does make them a dubious place for the walking-impaired to travel. There is no way to get home from any low-lying port or resort without climbing. All along the coast to the east and west of Genoa stand towns with a view of the sea (Camogli, Rapallo, Portofino, the Cinque Terre) and, behind them, others looking over their shoulders. Country people who cannot afford the seaside have to rise above it, and everywhere the traveler can see elderly people clambering upward like Sherpas, while young mothers with children take their passeggiata along the shore.

It is this very character, enforced by the Apennine spine of Italy, that makes Genoa Genoese -- that makes it as different from, say, Venice as a place can be, and different from Rome and Milan, with their broad shopping streets. Naples echoes Genoa in geographic conformation, but the world of Liguria only superficially resembles the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Though their terrain looks alike, Rapallo, in Liguria, does not much resemble -- in temperament, diet, climate, or ambiance -- Ravello, on the Amalfi coast.

To visit Genoa is to gain some sense of the spirit of Liguria, a seacoast of resort towns. One of these, the Genoese suburb of Nervi, lies a fifteen-minute train ride from the center of town. Maritime shipping traverses the Ligurian Sea, tiny fishing boats bob just offshore day and night, and Vespas snarl along the Via Aurelia during rush hour. You may also find pleasant -- or more than pleasant -- hotels, trattorias, and even good shopping. But it will be Genoa, pulsing with history and energy at the center of the Ligurian coast, that crowns your visit.

Peter Davison is the poetry editor of The Atlantic. His tenth book of poetry, No Escape, will be published next year.

The Atlantic Monthly; July 1999; Italy's Greatest Seaport - 99.07; Volume 284, No. 1; page 32-37.