by Roderick Conway Morris

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Rediscovering Genoa

By Roderick Conway Morris
GENOA 4 July 1997
Villa del Principe, Genoa
Villa del Principe



'It abounds in the strangest contrasts - things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive break upon the view at every turn,' wrote Charles Dickens during an extended stay here in 1844, and this diverting hugger-mugger of the good, the bad, the unsightly and the beautiful, which the novelist came to relish, remains. the essence of Genoa's character today.

Once a popular resort even for those not coming here to board ship for other Mediterranean destinations, the city has for some years been out of fashion. It is still Italy's busiest port, but mass air travel and the shift of much cruising to more exotic waters have reduced its importance as a passenger terminal; the docks have been plagued by management and labor problems, and traditional local industries have been in decline. All of which has undermined the old certainties and the unquestioned conviction that Genoa's principal business is business and stimulated a rediscovery, even by the Genoese themselves, of the city's artistic and recreational assets.

A turning point occurred in 1992 when, as part of the celebrations of the 500th anniversary of the city's most famous son's voyage to America, the Genoese architect Renzo Piano opened up the previously walled-off waterfront of the Old Port, restored the old warehouses for public uses and, with Peter Chermayeff, built the Acquario, Europe's largest aquarium, on a pier projecting out into the harbor. This splendid complex now houses 5,000 marine animals of 500 species - including, for example, some extremely rare Mediterranean monk seals - and is due for further expansion. At the same time the Carlo Felice Opera House, derelict since it was gutted in a bombing raid in 1944, was rebuilt, and the grandiose Palazzo Ducale transformed into a cultural center, with galleries, cafes and restaurants.

Genoa's cityscape has been formed by its position on a strip of shore hemmed in by an amphitheater of steeply rising mountains. Space was already at a premium hundreds of years ago, and the solution has been to build up and up: this has produced one of the most striking surviving historic centers in the world - the Old Town, where even Renaissance palaces and ancient tenement blocks are seven or more stories high, skyscrapers by the standards of their times.

The Genoese, moreover, were clearly in the habit of thinking streets a criminal waste of potential real estate, so these buildings ended up separated by the narrowest lanes and alleys, called 'carugi'. The upshot is a densely populated warren that teems with pedestrians during the day, and seems sometimes like an Oriental bazaar. And, curiously enough, not only does Genoa have the distinction of providing the setting for one of the tales in 'The Arabian Nights, ' but also appears elsewhere in Islamic literature, such as in the legendary folk epic of Sultan Baybars, where the Muslim princess Miriam is drugged, kidnapped and imprisoned by the infidels in Genoa. In the past the Old Town had a somewhat unsavory reputation, but the police presence is now more visible and during daylight hours it should be as safe as any other Italian city center.

Hidden away in this labyrinth are some gems of Romanesque ecclesiastical architecture, whose arches and alternating bands of dark gray and white stone give an almost Moorish effect. The hushed interiors of these oases provide instant sanctuary from the bustle outside, and they have an atmosphere of extraordinary antiquity and timeless tranquillity. Three of the finest of these are: Santa Maria di Castello, reputed to be the city's oldest church, with an exceptional 15th-century fresco of the Annunciation in its cloisters; San Donato, with a dazzling early 16th-century triptych by Joos Van Cleve, and San Matteo, the church of the noble Doria family.

So dense is the Old Town's fabric that even a very substantial building like the 16th-century Palazzo Spinola is almost lost in the maze, but it is well worth seeking out, since the interior gives a good impression of what life was once like for the city's immenselv wealthy banking aristocracy, and the top floors house a gallery, whose pictures include Antonello da Messina's celebrated 'Ecce Homo'.

Renaissance ideas about urban planning led in 1558 to the laying out of a wide thoroughfare on the edge of the congested Old Town, the Strada Nuova (New Street), now called Via Garibaldi. The Genoese magnates vied with one another in the magnificence of the mansIons they built along it, making it a kind of Millionaires' Row. These families' passion for art have left the city with several superb public collections of Italian, Flemish and Netherlandish Old Masters, notably those now at the Palazzo Bianco and Rosso.

Originally the palaces lining Via Garibaldi, which is slightly higher than the the heart of the Old Town, had good views over the harbor, but most of these have been obscured by the city's relentless vertical tendencies. To gain a better impression of these lost outlooks. one needs to visit the Palazzo Reale on Via Balbi, near the Principe train station. The palace has a series of wide balustraded terraces on the seaward side, elaborate 18th-century interiors and some good paintings.

Beyond the station is an idiosyncratic mansion, the Palazzo del Principe, a fortified seaside villa built outside the city walls in the 1520s by Andrea Doria. the most famous representative of this family that played a leading role in Genoa's history. Doria (1466/8-1560), seafarer. warrior, statesman and patron of the arts, had his own fleet of war galleys, which he commanded as a mercenary admiral well into old age, and used to anchor at the end of his gardens when he was in Genoa.

The grounds on the landward side were expropriated long ago to build rail lines, and the gardens running down to the shore have since been sliced in half by a noisy freeway making the palazzo a prime example of the damage inflicted on Genoa's heritage by ruthless modernization and haphazard town planning. The palazzo is, nonetheless, still important, not least because its innovative interior decoration was highly influential on many local buildings.

The Doria Pamphilj family, which has just completed a comprehensive renovation of its gallery in Rome, hopes to restore the layout of the Principe gardens, and if the freeway could be made an underpass as part of wider proposals by Piano and his supporters, the villa might yet become a symbol of Genoa's regeneration.

The Genoese have a reputation for being 'careful' with money, which may go some way toward explaining why one can eat very well at moderate cost in and near the cosmopolitan Old Town. Among the best of the reasonably priced gastronomic havens are Pintori (68 Via San Bernardo, tel. 010 275 7507), which serves Sardinian and seafood dishes; Nabil (21. Vico Falamonica, tel. 010 200 696), for Arab cuisine; and for traditional Genoese specialties, Gran Caffe Roberti and Ristorante Ducale, in the Palazzo Ducale cultural center (5 Piazza Matteoti, tel. 010 588 040), and Ristorante Europa, which is open till 2 A.M. (53 Galleria Mazzini, tel. 581 259).

On Piazza Matteoti there is also La Tavola del Doge, an excellent source of Ligurian olive oils, wines, cheeses, salamis, pastas, ready-made pesto sauces and special basil to make the most perfect homemade pesto (tel. 010 562 880; open Tuesday through Sunday).

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2022