What the Dick­ens in Genoa

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - THOMAS MARKS

Some say Italy’s Genoa takes its name from Janus, the two-faced god of time and door­ways. Per­haps. What’s cer­tain is the city has two as­pects: the vast in­dus­trial port, its docks the bared teeth of the Ital­ian Riviera; and, in the ruched strip of land be­tween the Lig­urian Sea and the hills, a be­wil­der­ing net­work of al­leys, stair­ways and ir­reg­u­lar lit­tle squares.

“Genoa is the tight­est to­po­graphic tan­gle in the world,” wrote Henry James, “which even a sec­ond visit helps you lit­tle to straighten out. In the won­der­ful crooked, twist­ing, climb­ing, soar­ing, bur­row­ing Ge­noese al­leys the trav­eller is re­ally up to his neck in the old Ital­ian sketch­a­bil­ity.”

The port has sent out il­lus­tri­ous ex­ports in its time. Most his­to­ri­ans think Christo­pher Colum­bus, the son of a wool weaver, was born here and lived next to one of its medieval gates. The Ge­noese don’t doubt that he was, and main­tain a rather desul­tory birth­place mu­seum in his hon­our. Giuseppe Mazz­ini, ac­tivist for the uni­fi­ca­tion of Italy, came from here, too, as in some man­ner did jeans, a cor­rup­tion of Genes, the French name for the city.

But for­get about the sea, and in­stead dive into those al­ley­ways. Here is a city (James again) that “would be al­most im­pos­si­ble to mod­ernise”, in which the medieval high-rises have clung close to one an­other for cen­turies, forg­ing a world of shad­ows be­low.

The ef­fect it has on the vis­i­tor, of dis­ori­en­ta­tion al­ter­nat­ing with dis­cov­ery, can be be­guil­ing.

Genoa was once La Su­perba (the proud one), one of the great mar­itime re­publics along­side Venice and Pisa, with the ar­chi­tec­tural and artis­tic am­bi­tions to match. There are grand build­ings here, not least the dozen 16th­cen­tury palaces on the Via Garibaldi that Rubens en­graved in 1622 (three now house the city’s civic art gal­leries). The past glory of Genoa is felt, how­ever, not in any spe­cific mon­u­ments, but in the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of de­tails. If you dart through the open door­way of a palazzo, you’ll prob­a­bly find a baroque nymphaeum be­yond; when you look up at the vaults in an old shop, there’s ev­ery chance you’ll spot blis­tered, salt-worn fres­coes still adorn­ing the ceil­ing.

An­other de­tail is that the streets here are full of dragons. From the Mid­dle Ages on­wards, the Ge­noese had a thing for dec­o­rated door jambs and lin­tels, since in the pinched, steep streets, the door­way was the best place to make a show of one’s wealth. The most de­sir­able sub­ject, re­served for dis­tin­guished naval cap­tains, was the city’s pa­tron saint, St Ge­orge. In many of th­ese re­liefs, Ge­orge’s ad­ver­sary is a testy lit­tle mon­ster, all sharp edges and with jaws that could take the hind leg off your stal­lion; above the door­way of Palazzo Cat­ta­neo Della Volta, though, there’s a dragon that looks like an Ital­ian grey­hound ask­ing to have its tummy tick­led.

When Charles Dick­ens ar­rived here in 1844, he found the place baf­fling, chaotic, even grotesque, writ­ing that “the great ma­jor­ity of the streets are as nar­row as any thor­ough­fare can well be, where peo­ple (even Ital­ian peo­ple) are sup­posed to live and walk about”. He couldn’t fathom how one city could be home to so many ugly priests. But Genoa’s sur­prises soon ex­erted their pull, and he stayed on for months: “There seems to be some­thing al­ways to find out in it.”

THE SPEC­TA­TOR

The old streets of Genoa

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