Something about port towns asks for a different aesthetic, and Genoa demands its own terms entirely. Its harbor widens into the Mediterranean, of course, and its place by the sea has almost entirely dominated its history. The Genoese were famous as navigators and sailors, and their banking and financial community rivaled that of Venice, their neighbor and rival on the other side of Italy.
Going to Genoa would prove to be a great adventure, because for once I had no idea of what would greet me. My images of other Italian cities I have visited—of course Rome and Florence, but also Turin and Milan and Venice—had been shaped beforehand by the things I had read, but Genoa was fresh to me; I knew the salami and Christopher Columbus, but little else.
We got off the train at Genoa Piazza Principe, the main station in the town. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century, and it was only upon our return that I would get a good glimpse of its exterior—marbled and squat and beautifully sturdy, as though somehow solidity counted for a unique beauty in this decaying city. Our hosts Anna and Carlo met us right off the train: Anna dear to us for some time, Carlo her boyfriend soon to be a welcome addition to our circle of friends. We walked immediately into the heart of the town, and almost as immediately, I felt that it was unlike the other Italian cities I had visited.
The city slopes up from its harbor at the same steep angles I had seen before in San Francisco and in Wellington, New Zealand. But the age makes a difference: Wellington, though set on perhaps the steepest incline, is a sloping city of parks and open spaces, and San Francisco has a certain consistency of architecture, all its beauty residing in its nineteenth-century buildings and its gracious pact between Victorian charm and modernity.
Genoa is quite a different character. Yes, it has some of the alluring seediness of a place like Venice—another city that gathered its power and reputation through sea commerce, from medieval times to the present. But if you were to liken the two cities to, say, a pair of old courtesans, still shimmering in rich decay, Venice would be the one who had better preserved her looks, either through cosmetics or some lucky genetic gift. But Genoa was far and away the one who was better company, filled with good stories and shady transactions.
The streets of this city bristled with a canny, subversive life, and today it was overcast, the rain imminent. Right from the start I saw the street vendors—not unusual in any Italian city, but more prevalent here, and perhaps more aggressive. There were a number of Africans, migrants from what were no doubt desperate circumstances on that troubled continent, selling bead bracelets and small, cheaply carved animals. There were also the Romani (Americans generally know them as “gypsies,” a term most of them resent); and then, quite common, the native Italian beggars, who migrate from table to table at the cafes, pleading insistently (and sometimes at great length). Our friend Carlo, who seemed a calmly quiet young man, refused one beggar again and again, and yet again as we had coffee in a Genoan piazza. I could see that, eventually, even his extensive patience was taxed, and I wondered how porous the “safety net” might be Italy, since a whole subterranean world seems built on a kind of drifter culture, especially in the slow, seedy climate of the port town.
It wasn’t long until, almost reluctantly, we were shown the statue. Christopher Columbus was honored rather late in Genoese history, with the monument erected roughly 150 years ago. A deeply romanticized portrait, Columbus like someone out of a Byronic poem, his hand resting on a “subdued Indian maiden,” as some descriptions would have it. The sight was uncomfortable, and when you put it together with the street-vending refugees and vagabonds, you couldn’t help thinking that it all tied together ultimately—that the glamour of the city had kept its shifty undercurrent for centuries, and where other cities had found ways to make street life less visible, Genoa had kept it in a noticeable tension somehow as part of the picture. It was a city that showed you the shadier side of the mercantile and capitalist economies in its balance with beautiful palaces and architecture. Where American mythology would blame the beggars, and where the Left would blame the dukes in the palaces, Genoa set the whole picture before you with an Italian shrug: è quello che è, or “it is what it is”—a maddening, cliché phrase to the American ear, but particularly apt in this complex city.
To please the tourists, the powers that be had dyed pink the water of the fountain at the Piazza Ferrari. Anna and Carlo were mildly horrified, I think, by what was certainly a gilding of the urban lily, but we, of course, were those tourists in question, sucked in by the coat of paint, and also with little girls waiting at home, whose favorite colors were pink and purple. So we took the photograph. And it was only later that it occurred to me how this publicity stunt brushed against the edges of marketing—presented a place in a manufactured prettiness, when its real beauty lay in something more harsh and compromised and durable.
“Are you shocked?” Anna would ask me later, as we passed through a narrow, Renaissance alley on our way to her flat. The dark, cramped passage was the haunt of Genoese prostitutes. Prostitution is open in Genoa, although technically illegal: the women work the daylight hours, standing in little alcoves off the alleys and the older, narrower streets. Indeed, there was little to shock in the arrangement, unless it was how policy conflicted with practice. Again, the city’s conflict between a nebulous idea (perhaps put forth in generations of advertising and tourism committees) and the essential heart and spirit of the city, rougher than any travel guide and yet alluring, an unabashed, unsentimental landscape in a long Italian history of maritime commerce.
The 18th century sailing ship docked at the harbor was testimony to the city’s wonderful paradox. Romanticized, like something out of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean, it seemed to be readying itself for a voyage on the high seas, for trading towns and swordplay on the deck. Next to it an African vendor hawked his bead bracelets, and it was only a short walk to a gelato shop and a restaurant whose front door seemed to open on the sluggish, oily water of the Mediterranean. Genoa has it both ways in those moments and places when it is most thoroughly itself, a haunt for the pirates of adventure stories and for the subtle, nuanced piracies of today. I left the city persuaded that I had yet to get a handle on it, but the rust and verdigris and decay that revealed itself through its prettier masks was part of its true and enduring beauty: that much I knew. ©2015 Michael Williams