by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Palazzo Ducale, Genoa
Chapel of the Doges' Palace, Genoa

Tales of Strife and Intrigue

By Roderick Conway Morris
GENOA 26 February 2000


The Genoese Republic peaked early as a colonial power in the eastern Mediterranean, and by the end of the 14th century it had been decisively displaced in the region by Venice.

But the bitter rivalry between the two maritime republics did not prevent Genoa from trying to imitate Venice's political system - the seemingly magic formula for social and political harmony at home and commercial success overseas.

The first doge of Genoa, Simone Boccanegra, whose name is kept alive by Verdi's opera, was duly appointed by public acclaim in 1339. The Palazzo Pubblico, where the Captains of the People had formerly presided, was expanded in 1388 to accommodate the new ruler and style of government, the first of a series of radical reconstructions down the centuries.

Neither Genoa's doges nor their palace ever acquired the glamour or mystique of the envied Venetian institution and the magnificent building that became its seat. The reasons for this are indicated, albeit sometimes obliquely, in 'El Siglo de los Genoveses' - 'The Century of the Genoese: Art and Splendor at the Doges' Palace' - an exhibition at Genoa's Doges' Palace, which is currently undergoing one of its periodic rebirths, this time as the city's new cultural center.

This is the first of a series of shows planned to run up to 2004, when Genoa will become the European Cultural Capital for the year. (The current exhibition continues until May 28.) The century in the show's title is the 16th, when the republic enjoyed a dramatic revival under the leadership of the admiral, statesman and patron of the arts Andrea Doria who, in one of those paradoxes typical of Genoese history, ruled the state as a virtual dictator but never actually became doge. And the organizers have chosen a title in Spanish in recognition of the overwhelming importance of Spain in the resurrection of Genoa's fortunes. For it was in the Spanish empire that Doria served as admiral-in-chief and the handling of Spain's financial business that vastly enriched Genoa's banking oligarchy.

In the days before Andrea Doria and his introduction, in 1528, of a fixed two-year term for the titular head of state, the Doges' Palace was the scene of repeated outbreaks of factional strife and sometimes ludicrous episodes reminiscent of French farce.

As the city's leading families vied with each other to place their man in position, one doge might be being elected in one part of the palace and another somewhere else in the building. In 1389 a frustrated candidate made a surprise return from enforced exile at the head of 7,000 supporters, and after dining amicably with the incumbent, politely but firmly showed him out of the door, thanking him for serving so ably as his deputy during his own 'unavoidable absence' from Genoa.

In 1461, another usurper, Paolo Fregoso, archbishop of Genoa, who evidently preferred the company of cut-throats to curates, enticed the serving doge to his own palace, kidnapped him and offered him the choice of handing over his job or being hanged. When Fregoso was in due course himself toppled, he fled to the harbor, commandeered four galleys and launched himself on a whole new career as a pirate.

Of all the doges, only one ruled for more than eight years. Many resigned or were driven out before taking office, or failed to complete a single day in power and, between 1339 and 1528, only four were legally elected.

There is a funerary sculpture of Boccanegra in the show, but otherwise few authentic contemporary representations of earlier doges now exist. None of the scores of later portraits on display, which were executed with wildly varying levels of skill, are permanently at the Doges' Palace, but come from other galleries and private collections in the city, elsewhere in Italy and abroad, as do the other paintings representing events in Genoese history involving the palace and the doges.

Unlike the Doges' Palace in Venice, the one in Genoa has been left with no real art collection of its own. For when the doges were in residence they were responsible for furnishing their own private apartments, taking their furniture and pictures away with them when they went.

The palace itself suffered a series of disasters. It was sacked several times by the mob, with everything on occasion being carried off, right down to the doors and windows. In 1777, the entire roof was destroyed in a blaze. Twenty years later Napoleon's revolutionary rabble smashed the palace's statuary to pieces and burned everything associated with the dogate they could lay their hands on.

The most notorious assault on the building occurred in 1684, when Louis XIV demanded that the Genoese disarm four galleys fitted out to fight the Barbary 'corsairs,' on the pretext they might be used to aid France's enemy, Spain. The doge and his ministers refused, and more than 100 French warships bombarded the city for 11 days, severely damaging the palace and devastating the town before running out of ammunition and sailing away, leaving Genoa bloodied but unbowed.

Soon after, Spain and France made peace, and the Genoese were obliged to dispatch the doge in person to Louis XIV to apologize for Genoa's former obduracy. As a desperate, last-minute face-saving measure, Genoese legal experts came up with the ingenious opinion that the doge 'though a member of the government, did not in himself on that account represent the Republic.' This bizarre exercise in diplomatic pantomime is recorded here by a huge canvas on loan from Versailles, depicting Louis graciously receiving the hapless Genoese delegation.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023