By Walter Sanders
They Say Genova. We Say Genoa.
My previous experience in Genoa was in the airport in 1999 to attend a Financial Services Congresso (Conference) in nearby Portofino.
I recall the view from the car window upon leaving the airport as uninspiring: a mixed bag of grungy industrial sites, grim housing, busy highways.
So, upon an 8:15 a.m. arrival at Genoa’s Porto Principe railroad station to meet our guide Filippo Zamparelli [email@example.com] for a walking tour of the city, I am a blank canvas.
Filippo is a delight. Bookish, fine command of English, a sharp sense of humor, a deep and abiding interest in history (his major field of study at the University of Genova) and a lifelong resident of the city.
We get to know each other informally over a caffé. He loves history of all types … including US history. Turns out that he follows the Chicago Cubs who until 2016, share a lovable losing history akin to the Genoa soccer club, which Filippo also closely follows.
From the get-go of the tour, Filippo emphasizes how the city is changing itself. Long a port of global importance, and a major industrial city of Italy, Genoa found itself falling behind other port and industrial cities. The competition was killing the city and it was unable or unwilling to react.
Young people leave, and suddenly city leaders realize that the thrifty, hard working Genovese must shift gears, open their hearts and minds to the new (for them) world of tourism.
Genoa Welcomes the World In a New Way
The catalyst for this behavioral sea change is the 1992 Columbus Exposition celebrating the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ setting sail for India and instead encountering the islands of the Caribbean.
Genoa decides to invest heavily and finds money to build a new aquarium out into the port. The waterfront area is cleaned up and the sea front, once feared and shunned by visitors, becomes a welcome mat and a portal to and for a progressive city.
Renowned local architect Renzo Piano leads the way. His mission is to reconnect the Old Port to the Old City.
A symbol for the new port is the Bigo (Genovese dialect for a shipyard crane) a dramatic, abstract, multi armed sculpture/elevator that captures the imagination of viewers while reminding them of the maritime heritage of Genoa.
Dozens of countries invest and participate in the event and nearly one million people from around the globe attend. It is a milestone tourism event for Genoa and a financial confirmation that the new strategy is on track.
The Protocol of the Genoese Rolli Palaces
Filippo explains that Genoa is a long-time republic. For centuries before outside rule, there was no king able to host important visitors, and hotels did not exist.
Wealthy families, with huge palazzi (palaces), were called upon by city leaders to host visiting royalty or wealthy guests.
This collection of available estates was called Rolli (Lists). Visitors were assigned their Palazzo via a lottery system. These grand palaces still exist today. Some are privately owned but others have been bought by banks and other institutions for commercial usage.
We visited one that is headquarters of the Genoa Chamber of Commerce. Describing it as “Grand” does it a grave injustice. At one point Filippo asks us to step into an OVS department store (see Video 1 at the end of the post). The glass façade looks exactly like a modern department store. He guides us in, and there on the ground floor amid ladies fashions, are austere columns and a statue that once overlooked the carriage entrance of a palace. The wealthy owners ran out of money in 1937, and sold the palazzo for commercial use.
Back to the Middle Ages
Filippo takes us to the medieval part of the city. It’s a seemingly endless web of caruggi (narrow streets; see Video 2 at end of post), even narrower alleys, and yet even more narrow walkways where one can touch buildings on both sides without fully spreading one’s arms. Just as you think you are lost in the maze of narrow lanes, you encounter a brightly lit, tiny square anchored by shops or a restaurant.
Since the 1992 Columbus Exposition, merchants have been coming back to the Old City and reopening shops and service establishments. These tend to pop up in small squares within the nexus of the medieval Old City.
The caruggi are a perfect metaphor for the pivot to tourism. Filippo shows us a poultry shop — with whimsical displays and funky artwork — filled with customers. It is one of the first shops to reopen in the medieval city and it is owned and operated by a young couple. This, Filippo says, is all about how Genoa is changing.
Another facet of change, the constant readjustment by the Genovese to external forces and opportunities, are the churches.
The Genoa Churches
The Duomo (Cathedral) San Lorenzo was under construction in the 12th Century. The intricate facade stonework detail is extraordinary…almost contemporary from a design perspective. Filippo pointed out that some local art historians see the stonework as an example of Arabic influence in the Genovese culture.
Inside, the appearance is largely austere and the size and scope of the building is less impressive than some of the other churches on the tour. It does not scream Cathedral.
The cupola is plain. The nave is narrow. Filippo explains that the bishops did not want to signal to the thrifty Genovese that donations were not being used for extravagant purposes.
But wait! What are those flashy enclaves next to the main altar and to the side of the church? As the financial fortunes of local families (the Doria, the Grimaldi, the Spinola) improved, the bishops allowed them to celebrate their wealth and memorialize their family names by building elaborate “chapels” within the Duomo.
Because these developments span centuries, the chapels reflect the architectural, artistic, personal preferences and styles of many periods. These chapels capture those changes in a wild range of artistic modes.
La Chiesa delle Vigne (The Church of the Vineyards) was originally Franciscan, an order that espouses austerity. Yet over the years, that artistic interpretation of Franciscan values changed as a rich family funded the transformation of the building to better reflect the spectacular wealth of the family. This Church looks more like the stereotype of a Cathedral than the Duomo.
However, there is one aspect of this Church that warms my heart. Upon columns on either side of a statue of the Holy Mother hang inscribed baby bibs of newcomers to the parish…boys (blue) on the left and girls (pink) on the right.
After listening all day to Filippo, and others around us speaking in Italian, I ask Filippo about the Genovese dialect. He laughs. “Many people consider it a different language…not just a dialect. As a port city, many entered and stayed here. We hear words that sound like Spanish, Portuguese, French, even Arabic. As the city changes, so does the language.” Now, when we see the word “Zena,” (Genovese for Genoa) we feel like we’re in gamba (with it) thanks to Filippo’s coaching.
In 2004, Genoa was selected as the European Capital of Culture. It is a well-deserved honor, and yet another credential that supports the notion of change from within.
Consider changing your travel habits to include Genoa on your next Italian adventure.