After a summer in which the media (the Guardian in particular – see this and this) carried regular reports on how cities like Venice (and Florence, and Barcelona, and others) were so overwhelmed by tourism that there are now anti-tourism protests and demands for local authorities to restrict tourist numbers, it seemed that I should suggest Genova as an alternative to Venice. (I prefer to use the local names, eg Genova, but it seems a bit pointless in the case of Venezia.) After all, they were the two great maritime trading republics of Renaissance Italy, and both have a wonderful legacy of art and architecture from their heydays. But in the end I have to admit that there are clear and obvious reasons why Venice is likely to receive (‘welcome’ would not be the right word) 20 million tourists this year and Genova is not. Venice is simply one of the most beautiful and magical places in the world, while Genova is a crowded workaday port where tourism is just a minor business.
While Venice was establishing colonies and trading settlements in the Adriatic and Eastern Mediterranean, Genova was doing the same, in the Black Sea and Crimea (where I came across their traces while writing my guides to Ukraine and Georgia) and also in Corsica, as mentioned here. By the mid-fourteenth century these had mostly been lost to the advancing Ottomans, and Genova’s merchants moved into banking, in particular providing the kingdom of Spain with large loans at very high interest rates, only affordable because of the flow of gold from South America. Spain gradually forced a change to longer-term loans at much lower rates, but Genova and its bankers became immensely rich and spent the wealth on art and culture, so that the period from 1560 to 1640 became known as the Genoese century.
This was when Genova’s own World Heritage Site, known as the Strade Nuove and the Palazzi dei Rolli, was created – the Strada Nouva or New Street (now Strada Garibaldi) was laid out after 1550 on the hilly edge of the then city (it has now climbed right up every available hill in the area, requiring a slightly Valparaíso-esque system of funiculars and escalators to reach them all), but the term Strade Nuove (plural) also includes Via Cairoli and Via Balbi. They were created to allow the city’s leading families to build immense new palaces – they were listed on official Rolls (Rolli) that obliged them to take turns hosting official guests to the city, rather than building an official government police. Now 42 palaces (of well over 100 in all) are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List; the tourist office organises regular tours, but the easiest and most obvious ones to visit are the three housing the city’s art galleries – get your ticket from the shop in the Palazzo Bianco then start with the Palazzo Rosso, across the road, before returning to the Palazzo Bianco and the linked Palazzo Tursi. Most of the palazzi were built by 1588, but the Rosso and Bianco were built a century later. In 1622 Rubens had published a famous and very influential book of engravings of the Palazzi di Genova, quite a feat seeing how hard it is to photograph the palazzi on this narrow street, less than 8m wide (see below).
The Palazzo Rosso was built for the two Brignole-Sale brothers, so it has two equally grand piani nobili or reception floors – the lower is a pure art gallery, while the upper has more of the original décor. They have some of the big names of the Italian Renaissance here – Andrea del Sarto, Bassano, Guercino, Sassoferrato, Titian, Tintoretto (circle of) and Veronese, as well as a surprisingly good portrait of a gentleman by an unknown Venetian from the end of the sixteenth century or the start of the seventeenth – scholars still have plenty of work to do. There are also, of course, various Genoese artists who weren’t bad at all, the best being Bernardo Strozzi (1581-1644), as well as Bernardo Castello (1557-1629), Cesare Corte (1550-1613), and the eighteenth-century sculptors Bernardo and Francesco Schiaffino. There’s also a good crop of Flemish art, as is quite normal in Italy due to the large numbers of northern artists travelling south. Here we have a good portrait by Willem Key (1515-68), who I hadn’t come across before, an uninspiring Deposition from the Cross by Rogier van der Weyden, who I usually find wonderful, plus Joos van der Cleve, Frans Pourbus, Hendrick Avercamp, Abraham Teniers, a series of the months of the year by Jan Wildens and, not exactly Flemish, a Dürer portrait of a young man. Upstairs they also have seven portraits of the Borgnone-Sale family by van Dyck, who spent the years 1621 to 1627 in Genova. Next you should take the lift to the 6th floor and go up to the rooftop viewpoint, for great photos of the city, and in particular the narrow Strada Nuova and its palaces. Then it’s down to the 4th floor to visit a couple of apartments, one with family portraits, big Chinese vases and library furniture (c.1840) by Henry Thomas Peters, and the other created in 1955 for the museum’s director, with a mix of modern (notably the fireplace) and ancient.
In the Palazzo Bianco (also built for the Brignone-Sale family) there are more paintings by Luca Cambiaso (including a self-portrait) and Veronese, plus Palma Il Giovane, Caravaggio and Simon Vouet; on the second floor the focus is on Tuscany, with a very striking Filippino Lippi (of Saints Sebastian, John the Baptist and Francis; 1503) facing the top of the stairs, and a Vasari portrait, as well as works by the three Spaniards Zurbarán, Ribera and Murillo, and more Flemish and Dutch art, including paintings by Gerard David, Jan Provoost, Joos van Cleve, Jan Matsys, Joos de Momper, Nicolaes Maes, Jan Steen and Aer van der Meer, as well as van Dyck, Rubens and Memling. There are more Genoese artists, Gioacchino Assereto (1600–49), Orazio de Ferrari (1606-57), and moving into the Baroque period Valerio Castello (son of Bernardo, 1624-59), Domenico Piola (1628-1703) and his son Pablo Gerolamo Piola (1666-1724). A modern tunnel (with exhibits of textiles and stone carvings) takes you to the Palazzo Tursi via the garden, with a few remains of the church of San Francisco in Castellotto (1255-1302), burial place of the first doge of Genova, Simone Boccanegra, and of the Empress Margaret of Brabant, who died of plague here in 1311.
The Palazzo Tursi (1565-79) has a few eighteenth-century works, including by the Genoese Gregorio de Ferrari (c.1647–1726) and Alessandro Magnasco (1667-1749), plus Canova’s sculpture of the Penitent Magdalene (c.1795), which was wildly popular at the time (Stendhal called it ‘the greatest work of modern times’) but also highly controversial due to the use of a metal crucifix and, apparently, waxed hair, blurring the boundaries of art and nature. There are also exhibits of weights and measures from the fifteenth century on, medals, coins, pharmacy jars and dishes, seventeenth-century Brussels tapestries and finally the Paganini room, celebrating the first great virtuoso violinist, born in Genova in 1782 – the centrepiece is his legendary Cannone (Canon) violin, made by Guarneri in 1743.
You can also visit a couple of palaces on via Balbi, notably the Palazzo Reale (or Palazzo Stefano Balbi), which was built between 1643 and 1650 and enlarged after 1824 when became the Genova home of the House of Savoy (rulers of Piedmont, Sardinia, and from 1861 of the united Italy). It probably retains more of its original furnishings and frescoes than any other of the city’s palaces (although they could do with sprucing up), and there’s a fine art collection here too, including paintings by Bernardo Strozzi, Bassano, Tintoretto, Luca Giordano, van Dyck and Guercino, and sculptures by Filippo Parodi. Across the road, it’s worth stepping into the courtyard of the Palazzo dell’Universita, built in 1634-40 for the Jesuits, and as grand a palace as any in the city – it’s no wonder they were expelled a century later. Since 1775 it has been the seat of the city’s university, and you’re free to look in and admire the lions on Parodi’s grand staircase.
It’s not far from via Balbi to the Villa Principe, also known as the Palazzo de Andrea Doria, near the railway station on Piazza del Principe – this was begun in 1529 by Andrea Doria, the great admiral of the Habsburg Empire, who was able to walk from the port to his palace through his magnificent gardens. After extensive bomb damage during World War II (hmmm, maybe being so close to the docks wasn’t such a great idea after all) the gardens have been beautifully restored to their seventeenth-century condition, with the imposing Fountain of Neptune (1601) as their centrepiece, and can be visited without payment. The villa (which you do have to pay to visit) was decorated internally with mythological frescoes and plasterwork by Perino del Vaga (a pupil of Raphael, who later became the leading painter in Rome), as well as seventeenth-century tapestries and paintings by del Piombo, Bronzino and Piola. The Habsburg emperor Charles V was a regular guest here of Andrea Doria, and in 1877 the villa became the winter home of the composer Giuseppe Verdi.
Finally, you shouldn’t miss the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace), between Piazza Matteoti and Piazza De Ferrari, not because it is old and beautiful – it was largely rebuilt in Neoclassical style after a fire in 1777 – but because it houses an excellent programme of exhibitions and events.
Between Strada Garibaldi and the old port is the old town of Genova, a maze of alleys that used to be a filthy and dangerous no-go area; now it’s seeing some gentrification and has certainly been thoroughly cleaned up. At its heart is the duomo or cathedral of San Lorenzo, begun c.1098, consecrated in 1118 and partly rebuilt after a fire in 1296. The façade was completed in 1312, in what looks to me like a Pisan Gothic style (with a fine carving of the Martyrdom of San Lorenzo above the main door dating from c.1255), but much of the Romanesque interior remains. In the north aisle, the Chapel of St John the Baptist (1492-1608) is a little Renaissance masterpiece, with a statue by Domenico Gagini and a grand baldachino (1532-41). For a Brit, one interesting sight is an unexploded 15-inch shell near the southeastern corner of the cathedral – it was fired from HMS Malaya in a raid on the docks in February 1941, but went slightly astray. Naturally the fact that it failed to explode was ascribed to the Virgin Mary.
As for other churches, San Luca was rebuilt in 1626-50 and totally covered in frescoes by Piola, and there’s a sculpture of the Immaculate Conception by Filippo Parodi on the altar. And as Baroque monstrosities go, the Basilica dell’Annunziata isn’t too bad.
None of this adds up to a fraction of what’s on view in Venezia, and Genova doesn’t have that certa qualcosa (a certain something) that makes every visitor to Europe want to visit Venice, but still, it’s worth at least a day of anyone’s time.
Genova is far better than Venezia only in terms of its restaurants – there’s almost nothing left in Venice that isn’t a tourist trap, but Genova has some excellent restaurants serving authentic local food. The city is famous above all for pesto genovese, the basil and garlic paste that, with a little pasta, makes a wonderfully satisfying meal on its own, and also for foccacia, a herby flat bread like a very basic pizza, but many people come here simply to eat seafood, such as lobster with pasta or squid ink risotto. I have no personal recommendations, but friends have enjoyed Panson, San Giorgio and Il Genovino. One place that caught my eye is Tiflis, an Italian-Georgian fusion place that I shall have to try as and when I next stop over here. (I’m about to go to Georgia to research the sixth edition of my Bradt guidebook.)
I stayed at the official youth hostel, in a stunning location high above the city (with parakeets flying past, just like in London); it’s clean and decent enough but maintenance is not their strong point (that’s typically Italian, however). There’s a good bus service from the Brignole railway station, but if you walk up the steps cunningly concealed behind the hostel car park and walk to the right for ten minutes you’ll come to the top station of the Zecca-Righi funicular, which runs every 15 minutes (06.40 to midnight) down to the city centre with five stops (plus two in a tunnel where the balancing car is at a stop). It’s covered by the standard €1.50 AMT ticket which gives travel for 100 minutes on buses, funiculars and elevators, and the city’s rather basic metro, which covers a 7km route largely parallel to the waterfront from the Brignole railway station, via Piazza Principe, the city’s other main station, to Brin, just northwest of the centre. Principe is the station for the Stazione Marittima, which nowadays handles cruise ships (and there are usually one or two of them docked here), but the next station west, Dinegro, is the one for the ferry port, with ships leaving frequently for Corsica, Sardinia, Morocco, Tunisia and Malta. San Giorgio, between Brignole and Principe, is the station for the tourist information office, but the sign as you leave the metro sends you in diametrically the wrong direction – it’s to the right, not the left.
A new railway line, tunnelling through the hills just inland from the coast, should open in 2021 – in addition to linking to the high-speed network to Torino, Milano and beyond, it will also carry freight from the Ligurian ports and release capacity for the development of regional passenger services. I hope the new tunnels are maintained better than those along the coast towards the French border, through which trains travel fairly fast but rather bouncily. [Work on the new tunnels was suspended for two years but restarted in July 2020, with completion now due at the end of 2022.]