Why do so few people visit Genoa?
I ask this question every time I visit the Italian city. Two summers ago, I heard one of the best answers from Mitchell Wolfson Jr., an American who moved to Genoa in 1968 and is the founder of the Wolfsoniana, a museum of decorative and propaganda arts in nearby Nervi.
“Verdi put it best,” Mr. Wolfson said. “‘Popolo della feroce storia.’ It’s a place that has never gotten over its ferocious past.”
Genoa is not Florence, Rome or Venice. There is no predigested list of must-see attractions or must-do activities, no romantic watery lagoons, no birth of the Renaissance to chase after. Its tourist infrastructure might be summed up as less is more. The city invites — in fact, it requires — you to have your own experience. And it repays the effort. “Once Genoa gets inside of you, it cannot be purged,” Mr. Wolfson said. “Genoa has a heart and soul like no other.”
Attracted by the city’s unfolding mysteries, unwavering authenticity, distinct language and food, sardonic worldview and its ferocious past, I have prowled its streets for more than 15 years now, wondering the whole time why there are so few others doing the same.
There are various ways in. I prefer to begin with geography, because it means as much today as it did in 1005, the year Genoa became a republic. For eight centuries, Genoa (along with Venice, Pisa and Amalfi) was one of the great maritime republics of what is now Italy. Back then, it was every republic for itself, fierceness fueled with desperation, flamed by ingenuity. Genoa possessed all three in abundance.
Set in the steep curve of the northwestern Italian coastline, the city had nowhere to graze cattle, raise wheat or escape invasion. There was only the sea, to navigate, dominate and to launch locally fabricated galleys. Commerce (or piracy, depending on who’s telling the story) was not always practiced with noble intent, but always with big, ruthless drive, which, in time, consolidated fortunes into the hands of a few families who still own swaths of the city.
Genoa is a place of several firsts and superlatives: the first bank, Casa San Giorgio, 1407; the first soccer team, Genoa C.F.C., 1893; the most famous explorer, native son Cristoforo Colombo; and the most notable prisoner, Marco Polo, who was imprisoned in 1298 during a war between Genoa and Venice, then rival republics.
It is a curious miscellany, perfectly fitted to the city’s equally curious topography. Walking across Genoa’s sloping urban patchwork can sometimes feel like stepping into one of Piranesi’s intricate engravings, a cityscape that seems to have been cut up and glued back every which way. Its dense hills are crisscrossed by secret footpaths called crêuze, which thread up and down, in and out. They can be shortcut by one of the city’s strange dozen-plus elevators and funiculars, which whiz you inside the mountains. One, the Ascensore Montegalletto, even changes midpoint from horizontal to vertical and is a captivating must for adults and children.
In summer 2015, I rode the beautiful wood-paneled elevator to Castelletto with my friend Michela Fierro, a medical school librarian. When we stepped onto the Belvedere Montaldo, the whole city opened before us as if we were in a cinematic panorama. The two of us gazed out on an urban sea of every imaginable style of palazzo, church, shop, warehouse, dock — and even a lighthouse, erected in 1543 and known as La Lanterna — all of it tumbling chockablock toward the actual eye-stinging blue sea.
“I’m still discovering my own city, and I doubt I’ll finish before I die,” my friend said as we slipped over to the Antica Farmacia Sant’Anna. The monastic apothecary produces Acqua di Sant’Anna, a unisex fragrance (my wife says too fragrant), and Acqua di Melissa, which is meant to calm nerves, essential when having lost your way, which you can count on doing.
Michela’s cherished secret spots included the offbeat Piazza della Giuggiola, an exquisite square paved with river rocks rivaled only by the nearby Piazza dell’Olivella in tranquillity and poetic otherworldliness. But probably the most unusual things she pointed out that afternoon were the double entrances to buildings built on slopes so steep, they can be reached from either the street below or the one above, often by way of a catwalk that delivers you to a second front door on the roof. Only in Genoa.
Only in Genoa: The Castello D’Albertis, with its collection of ethnographic artifacts and its Turkish sitting room, is just one of the dozens of over-the-top, architecturally mishmashed villas built by sea captains and merchants that are tucked into these hills like almonds in a bar of chocolate.
Only in Genoa: The paradox of these densely built slopes is that they suddenly deliver you to wide open Via Garibaldi, which is lined with rigorously balanced, ornate palazzi built in the 16th and 17th centuries by the city’s powerhouse families, one next to the other — Bel Air gone Baroque. Today Via Garibaldi is a street full of banks and law firms and, more accessibly, Palazzo Rosso and Palazzo Bianco. The two museums are awash with paintings by Veronese and Van Dyck, and acres of gilded furniture, mirrors and porcelain, the swag of its day, constituting a vivid snapshot of the Genovese aesthetic: showy and understated, luxe and frugal, public and (more typically) private.
At Via Garibaldi 12, the city’s pre-eminent design store, Michela and I fantasized about what it might feel like to toast the sunset with Murano glasses bubbling with prosecco, while sitting on Gio Ponti chairs under a fresco of buxom goddesses floating on clouds. If there is a more striking example of retail panache anywhere in Italy I’ve never seen it.
In the center of the city, I am drawn to treasured places like the Church of the Gesù with its amazing Rubens altarpieces; or the Genoa Cathedral, the august black-and-white-stripe monument to St. Lawrence, with the city’s mascot lions standing guard; or Palazzo del Melograno, where Xavier F. Salomon, the chief curator at the Frick Collection in New York and a longtime Genoa fan, told me he also loves to take friends to see the Filippo Parodi Hercules that guards the makeup department of OVS, a low-cost department store.
This local mind-set — leave things as they fall, unfixed as long as they remain unbroken — is seen by the city’s critics as a sign of its frugality. To my mind, it is Genoa’s greatest gift to a visitor. Hercules stands where he always has, just as the city simply adds to its intractable buildings so that in just one facade you might see a baroque cornice on top of a frieze of Renaissance windows spliced into a medieval arch.
The intactness is most evident in the caruggi, the city’s narrow medieval streets. Dark, umbrageous, sometimes pungent (though not as bad as when Dickens likened their scent to “very bad” cheese), they have had their ups and downs. Ten years ago I saw addicts shooting up in Piazza San Cosimo, a space now shared by a chic restaurant (La Mandragola) and a convivial bar (Taverna Zaccaria). All is part of the fluctuation of Zena, as the city is referred to in Genovese.
In these streets you can happen onto the city’s last triperia, where slabs of boiled tripe are mounded upon marble counters; the century-old Drogheria Torielli, a purveyor of spices, remedies and herbs, where I once saw a single tea bag gift-wrapped as lovingly as if it had been an emerald ring; and Profumo, which in 2015 was named the No. 1 gelato shop in all of Italy by the food and wine magazine Gambero Rosso.
On my annual visit last summer, I stood transfixed outside one of several African tailors’ shops in the caruggi, where a man was being fitted for a jacket sewn out of vivid red kente cloth pattered with enormous black keys — an accurate metaphor if ever there was one, since one key to the future of the city, which has the lowest birthrate and the oldest population in all of Italy, is inevitably going to lie with its immigrant population.
The port is home to the city’s most popular tourist attractions, among them the recently renovated Galata Museo del Mare, which deftly chronicles Genoa’s maritime history. Eataly, which has cleverly repackaged Italian foodstuffs even to Italians, is another popular spot, as is the beloved aquarium, which was part of the 1992 rehabilitation of the neighborhood overseen by Renzo Piano, a Genoa native son.
The port became the busiest in all of Italy, and there are plans, also conceived by Mr. Piano, to double its size, said Luigi Merlo, the director of the port from 2008 to 2015. The expansion would accommodate the cruise ships, yachts and container traffic that keep its 20 kilometers of docks busy night and day. “Ultimately absolutely everything in Genoa is about the sea,” Mr. Merlo said.
That observation applies to its food as well. In the old warehouse neighborhood adjacent to the port, I like to eat at Vico Palla, where Maurizio Capurro serves classic dishes derived from the region’s poor kitchens and include reconstituted dried cod; cundijun, a salad composed of hard mariners’ biscuits soaked in tomatoes, capers, tuna and onions; and, of course, pesto, which might rival Columbus as Genoa’s most famous “export.” When made of basil cultivated in the greenhouses of nearby Pra, I find that it is more intoxicating and soul-soothing than any other version.
What the Genovesi get right, they get spectacularly right, and they simply keep on doing it forever. You see this in the centuries-old style of candy-making practiced at Pietro Romanengo and in the colorful printed cottons for sale at Rivara, a 200-year-old fabric shop. But you see it just as clearly in the way fish is prepared at GE817, a new restaurant in the Boccadasse neighborhood run by the local fishermen’s cooperative, which is helping to bring fresh energy to the former fishing village.
Genoa defines itself by its standards, a long memory and implacable endurance. Consider Mangini, a cherished old bar and pasticceria. It’s a place where businessmen in custom suits wield knives and forks as they dig into pastries served on silver-plated stands.
I met there with Ariel Dello Strologo, a lawyer and president of the city’s small Jewish population, to discuss the city’s future. Mr. Dello Strologo said its fate rested on the port, immigration and tourists.
“They come now more than they used to,” he said, speaking of the tourists. “They come, they linger, they delight in what is old, and they are surprised by what is new. The momentum is gathering here. Tech businesses are moving in. Hotels, like Le Nuvole, are revitalizing old palazzi. The museum of modern art has fresh energy, but in the Genovese way: cautiously, gradually, genuinely.
“There is so much talent and creativity in this city,” he added. “It’s like a fine car with the parking brake on that is just waiting to be set free.”
When it is (and even if it isn’t), I’ll be there.
by Michael Frank – nytimes.com