Discovering the world of Columbus

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 July, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 July, 1997, 12:00am

Christopher Columbus' home town, Genoa, was a seedy and run-down port with insufferable traffic and the omnipresent risk of crime at the beginning of this decade.

Then came the 500th anniversary of his discovery of the New World. This son of a cloth weaver was convinced that the world was round, and that the riches of the Orient - those which had so elevated the fortunes of Genoa's arch rival, Venice - could be had by sailing westward across the Atlantic.

Columbus was rebuffed by the ruling families of Genoa and took his proposal to Spain, where he finally received the funding for the fateful voyage.

But modern Genoa's town fathers were not about to let a 500-year-old 'misunderstanding' ruin their opportunity for a big party - or a reversal in sagging tourist revenues.

It was the perfect opportunity to give the city a much needed facelift: the collapse of the post World War II industrial boom had brought hard times to the city that - as Italy's largest port - was already decidedly rough in character.

And so it was a substantially different Genoa, which had been given a multi-million dollar overhaul, that my wife and I visited recently.

Though the modern capital of the region of Liguria stretches for 30 kilometres along the apex of the gulf that bears its name, the sites most worth seeing are congregated in a small and very negotiable - on foot, that is - area radiating inland from the old (as opposed to commercial) port.

Historical Genoa can be divided into two separate, but equally appealing, parts: the medieval walled city of narrow alleyways and cramped piazzas that radiates outward and upward from the Porto Vecchio and the Renaissance city of spacious piazzas and magnificent, art-laden palazzos that envelops it on what is the next tier up in the city's amphitheatre-like setting.

Though Genoa itself produced few major artists, it was more than flush with the ready cash to commission works by established European masters.

As the heart of the old harbour, the Piazza Caricamento is a very appropriate place to begin your tour as it reflects the way that Genoa itself began - from the sea.

An elongated arc of colonnaded stucco store fronts that were once the city's most prominent commercial establishments today house small shops, bars, and carry-away restaurants.

Not to be missed - and indeed hard to - is the medieval custom house with its imposing vaulted brick structure and ornate mullioned windows. Upstairs in the wood panelled room now populated with their bronze likenesses is where Genoa's leading families - the Doria, the Grimaldis, and the Spinolas - convened (whenever they weren't feuding that is, which was most of the time) to set the city's course, and presumably, refuse Columbus' proposal.

Immediately inland begins the irregular maze of narrow streets and passageways known as carugi which still constitutes the spiritual and commercial centre of modern-day Genoa.

Just to the east of this cramped but certainly not unappealing warren is the political and secular centre of the old city, the Piazza Matteotti.

Dominating the square is the Palazzo Ducale, the former residence of the doge with its distinctive, and distinctly Genoese, horizontal black-and-white striped marble facade. Today the palace serves primarily as an exhibition centre. Immediately to the west rise the asymmetrical, and also black-and white-striped, spires of the Cattedrale di San Lorenzo.

Dating back to the 12th century, the once magnificent cathedral suffered extensive damage during Allied bombing raids in 1943.

The attached Treasury contains what are believed to be the remains of Saint John the Baptist, a polished quartz plate upon which Salome is reputed to have delivered his head, and the Sacro Catino, a cup allegedly given to Solomon by the Queen of Sheba before being used by Jesus at the Last Supper.

Of course you can't go to Genoa without paying homage to its most famous native son. The Casa di Colombo, or at least what is popularly reputed to be such, is a vine-covered, stone structure located directly opposite the noisy Piazza Dante, but aesthetically back-dropped by the twin-towers of the restored 12th century Porta Soprana and the very much unrestored colonnade of the Cloister of St Andeas.

The historical fact of the matter is that no one is sure just where the great explorer was born. But both tourists and locals needed a site to commemorate and this frequently rebuilt residence was once owned by Columbus' father who also served as the city's official gatekeeper.

The centre of Renaissance Genoa is the Via Garibaldi. Though most of the once glorious aristocratic residences have faded with time and neglect and now serve as office complexes, a few have been converted into museums.

On display in venues such as the Palazzi Bianco, Rosso, and Spinola are works by 16th and 17th century French, Spanish, and Dutch masters - all purchased by Genoa's exceedingly wealthy ruling class.

There is one more favourite son to pay homage to, Giuseppe Mazzini, the founder of the Young Italy Movement. Mazzini was born in the house that now serves as an historical museum in 1805 while Giuseppe Garibaldi, from nearby Nice, cut his political teeth in Genoa during the insurgence of 1834.

Though the two would eventually collaborate to bring about the unification of Italy in 1861, they would do so in true Genoese style - they loathed each other.

Back at the waterfront, there is still one thing left to see - the city from on high - at the Il Bigo, an octopus-like contraption that lifts camera-toting tourists 200 metres above the old harbour.

The multi-centuried collage of living history that is still referred to derogatorily by many Italians as La Superba presents an undisputedly superlative sight.