Thursday, December 07, 2006

Dickens and Genova

Genova today

Genova today: area around S. Lorenzo and historic city centre

Inside the White Palace (Palazzo Bianco)

Porta Soprana

Palazzo Rosso

Palazzo Rosso

Church of S Siro: The present church of San Siro was erected during the 4th century where an ancient graveyard once stood and was dedicated to the twelve Apostles. The temple was named after San Siro, once Bishop of Genoa, only at the end of the 6th century. The church was turned into an Abbey in 1006 and given to Benedictine Monks who were ordered by the bishop to rebuild it in a Romanesque style. It became the Bishop's seat, which depended upon Milan till 1133, when Pope Innocent II founded the archdiocese of Genoa. The holy building was burned in the 15th century, during the civil unrests and in 1575 it was given to the Teatini Fathers who stayed in it till Napoleon's elimination of the first monasteries in 1798. The present aspect of the church is the product of the reconstruction which took place in the 17th century and some in the 19th century.

Via del Campo, a completely restored, wonderful narrow cobblestone street . The most famous landmark of this street is the old medieval Porta dei Vacca, which was the western gate to the town, built in mid 12th century and still perfectly conserved.
Boccadasse is a small fishing-village inside of Genova that kept its old character

Soprana Gate and Columbus House
Soprana Gate is one of the most important monument of medieval military architecture and is the only remaining feature with Porta dei Vacca of the circle of walls erected in 1100’s to deter emperor Federico Barbarossa from attacking Genova. At the front of the Gate lies the Christopher Columbus' house bordering the Romanesque Cloister of St. Andrea.

The picture by Grasso, painted at the end of the sixteenth century, reproduces the official image of the city, produced in 1481 and today lost.
Woodcut from Hartmann Schedel’s Weltchronik (Nürnberg 1493), fol. lviii verso. This is one of the famous realistic town views from Schedel’s work
Staglieno Cemetery
The Strada Nuova
The White Palace
The Red Palace
The Royal Palace
The Prince`s palace
Diocese of Genova and its museum

Extracts from Charles Dickens Pictures from Italy


The first impressions of such a place as ALBARO, the suburb of Genoa, where I am now, as my American friends would say, ‘located,’ can hardly fail, I should imagine, to be mournful and disappointing. It requires a little time and use to overcome the feeling of depression consequent, at first, on so much ruin and neglect. Novelty, pleasant to most people, is particularly delightful, I think, to me. I am not easily dispirited when I have the means of pursuing my own fancies and occupations; and I believe I have some natural aptitude for accommodating myself to circumstances. But, as yet, I stroll about here, in all the holes and corners of the neighbourhood, in a perpetual state of forlorn surprise; and returning to my villa: the Villa Bagnerello (it sounds romantic, but Signor Bagnerello is a butcher hard by): have sufficient occupation in pondering over my new experiences, and comparing them, very much to my own amusement, with my expectations, until I wander out again.


In the course of two months, the flitting shapes and shadows of my dismal entering reverie gradually resolved themselves into familiar forms and substances; and I already began to think that when the time should come, a year hence, for closing the long holiday and turning back to England, I might part from Genoa with anything but a glad heart.

It is a place that ‘grows upon you’ every day. There seems to be always something to find out in it. There are the most extraordinary alleys and by-ways to walk about in. You can lose your way (what a comfort that is, when you are idle!) twenty times a day, if you like; and turn up again, under the most unexpected and surprising difficulties. It abounds in the strangest contrasts; things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive, break upon the view at every turn.


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; being mere lanes, with here and there a kind of well, or breathing-place. The houses are immensely high, painted in all sorts of colours, and are in every stage and state of damage, dirt, and lack of repair. They are commonly let off in floors, or flats, like the houses in the old town of Edinburgh, or many houses in Paris. There are few street doors; the entrance halls are, for the most part, looked upon as public property; and any moderately enterprising scavenger might make a fine fortune by now and then clearing them out. As it is impossible for coaches to penetrate into these streets, there are sedan chairs, gilded and otherwise, for hire in divers places. A great many private chairs are also kept among the nobility and gentry; and at night these are trotted to and fro in all directions, preceded by bearers of great lanthorns, made of linen stretched upon a frame. The sedans and lanthorns are the legitimate successors of the long strings of patient and much-abused mules, that go jingling their little bells through these confined streets all day long. They follow them, as regularly as the stars the sun.

When shall I forget the Streets of Palaces: the Strada Nuova and the Strada Balbi! or how the former looked one summer day, when I first saw it underneath the brightest and most intensely blue of summer skies: which its narrow perspective of immense mansions, reduced to a tapering and most precious strip of brightness, looking down upon the heavy shade below! A brightness not too common, even in July and August, to be well esteemed: for, if the Truth must out, there were not eight blue skies in as many midsummer weeks, saving, sometimes, early in the morning; when, looking out to sea, the water and the firmament were one world of deep and brilliant blue. At other times, there were clouds and haze enough to make an Englishman grumble in his own climate.

The endless details of these rich Palaces: the walls of some of them, within, alive with masterpieces by Vandyke! The great, heavy, stone balconies, one above another, and tier over tier: with here and there, one larger than the rest, towering high up—a huge marble platform; the doorless vestibules, massively barred lower windows, immense public staircases, thick marble pillars, strong dungeon-like arches, and dreary, dreaming, echoing vaulted chambers: among which the eye wanders again, and again, and again, as every palace is succeeded by another—the terrace gardens between house and house, with green arches of the vine, and groves of orange-trees, and blushing oleander in full bloom, twenty, thirty, forty feet above the street—the painted halls, mouldering, and blotting, and rotting in the damp corners, and still shining out in beautiful colours and voluptuous designs, where the walls are dry—the faded figures on the outsides of the houses, holding wreaths, and crowns, and flying upward, and downward, and standing in niches, and here and there looking fainter and more feeble than elsewhere, by contrast with some fresh little Cupids, who on a more recently decorated portion of the front, are stretching out what seems to be the semblance of a blanket, but is, indeed, a sun-dial—the steep, steep, up-hill streets of small palaces (but very large palaces for all that), with marble terraces looking down into close by-ways—the magnificent and innumerable Churches; and the rapid passage from a street of stately edifices, into a maze of the vilest squalor, steaming with unwholesome stenches, and swarming with half-naked children and whole worlds of dirty people—make up, altogether, such a scene of wonder: so lively, and yet so dead: so noisy, and yet so quiet: so obtrusive, and yet so shy and lowering: so wide awake, and yet so fast asleep: that it is a sort of intoxication to a stranger to walk on, and on, and on, and look about him. A bewildering phantasmagoria, with all the inconsistency of a dream, and all the pain and all the pleasure of an extravagant reality!


In some of the narrow passages, distinct trades congregate. There is a street of jewellers, and there is a row of booksellers; but even down in places where nobody ever can, or ever could, penetrate in a carriage, there are mighty old palaces shut in among the gloomiest and closest walls, and almost shut out from the sun. Very few of the tradesmen have any idea of setting forth their goods, or disposing them for show. If you, a stranger, want to buy anything, you usually look round the shop till you see it; then clutch it, if it be within reach, and inquire how much. Everything is sold at the most unlikely place. If you want coffee, you go to a sweetmeat shop; and if you want meat, you will probably find it behind an old checked curtain, down half-a-dozen steps, in some sequestered nook as hard to find as if the commodity were poison, and Genoa’s law were death to any that uttered it."

At first, Dickens disliked the city. Then his feelings changed. He began to know and love it.

The city, like its people, is reserved. It takes a while to get to know it.

The epithet "superba" (proud) that the city has carried down through the centuries was first given by Francesco Petrarca. Writing of a visit to Genoa in 1358 the poet described the city, in Latin of course, as follows: "you will see a regal city on the side of a rugged hill, proud in its men folk and city walls The aspect of the place alone tells you the city is mistress of the seas".

It has been described as a city of contradictions.Extraordinay wealth grew up beside extreme poverty. Trade was its raison d`etre. It is a port which has absorbed peoples from many races. Its history is unlike those of the other city states which grew up in early medieval times. It had a unique form of government.

It is a confusing city. There are mazes of narrow alleyways and streets in the old city centre. The large buildings on both sides of the streets make it difficult for visitors to find their way easily. It is not as accessible as say Florence or Rome.

Dickens was entranced by the Strada Nuova and Via Balba.

The Strada Nuova is now Via Garibaldi.The street was lined with buildings of rare splendour for their majestic atriums, staircases, courtyards, rooms, frescoes and stuccoes, along with roof gardens that allowed one to be in tune with nature while in the heart of the city.

The great Genoese noble families (including the Spinola, Lomellini, and Grimaldi families) made this street into their own residential neighborhood.

The new, magnificent and elegant street constituted a status symbol for the richest and most powerful families of the Genoese oligarchy, while simultaneously offering all of Europe an example of a new, grandiose kind of residence. The Strada Nuova has attracted the attention of and charmed visitors and scholars at various times in history, the first among these Peter Paul Rubens, who went to Genoa on several occasions during the first years of the 1600s. A 1622 volume about the street written and illustrated by the great painter was published in Antwerp and spread the magnificent street's fame throughout the world

Via Balbi is also rich with palaces and now houses the university buildings of the School of the Humanities.

In 1805 Napoleon proclaimed himself King of Italy and France. He added Genova and its Ligurian Republic to his kingdom.

In the following period, the territory was reorganised and institutions were modified, but at the same time economic and maritime activities slowed down.

After the downfall of Napoleon the congress of Vienna deprived Genova of its independence and joined it to the Kingdom of Sardinia.

In this period during which the economic situation continued to stagnate, first attempts at speculation were made by transforming medieval buildings into modest rental homes, and the rich owners moved out of the city walls.

Towards the middle of the century and thanks to careful action on behalf of the public administrators of the Kingdom of Sardinia, the city had an economic re-birth as testified by the urban expansion outside the walls.

It was during this period that Dickens visited the city.

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