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BOOK REVIEW: Genoa ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower by Nicholas Walton

Book cover: Genoa ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower by Nicholas Walton
Book cover: Genoa ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower by Nicholas Walton
Book cover: Genoa ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower by Nicholas Walton

“It has more in common with Marseilles, Naples and Palermo, than with Florence, Milan or Rome. It has a heedless authenticity that accepts the dog dirt on the cobblestones, the muck that has accumulated on the marble, and the shameless intrusion of the sopraelevata. That is life. If you want to catch a glimpse of Italy as it has been lived for centuries, rather than simply something that looks good on postcards, come to Genoa”

And so begins an honest homage to a great Italian city. Seedy, busy, medieval and modern, locked against a rocky, difficult terrain and the sea, Genoa is unique, vibrant and a hidden gem. While most books about Italy have been dedicated to tourist hubs like Milan, Florence, Rome, Sicily and Venice, Genoa with its rich history, rugged landscape, and tenacious residents, has been given only a passing mention. Journalist Nicholas Walton decided to rectify this oversight by writing a book devoted entirely to the former mercantile empire. This book is his ode to the Genoese.

Walton, whose wife hails from Genoa, moved to the city and immersed himself in its culture, food, history and people. The result is an incredibly detailed, charming, and intriguing work that’s part travel diary, and part thoughtfully researched history book about a captivating city that remains woefully underrated. If you were looking for a reason to visit Genoa, Walton just gave you a thousand in under 220 pages. Truthfully, as someone who is interested in Italian history and currently learning Italian, I too left Genoa off my list in favour of visiting more popular Italian cities. Not anymore; after reading Walton’s book I’ve added this former pirate powerhouse to my list of must-see places in Italy.

Genoa, 1572, Georg Braun; Frans Hogenberg - image courtesy of Wiki Commons.
Genoa, 1572, Georg Braun; Frans Hogenberg – image courtesy of Wiki Commons.

The Beginnings of an Empire: Genoa Fights Back

Walton’s book is a chronological look at Genoa, interspersed with his personal observations and anecdotes from locals. He devoted a good portion of the book to Genoa’s medieval and early modern periods. Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Lombards and Carolingians all had parts to play in early medieval Genoese history but what really caused Genoa to take off as a political and maritime power was being sacked by Muslim raiders in 930. This pivotal moment forced its hand; Genoa could either shrink quietly into obscurity, or play with the big boys.

“The Genoese were confronted with a choice: they could retreat into the mountains or engage with the sea and the raiders…they chose the latter course”

Not only did they fight back, but the Genoese became ambitious, adventurous, and prosperous on the open seas. They got rid of the pirates plaguing them, turned the tables, and became adept pirates and raiders themselves.

The second boost for Genoa arrived with the First Crusade; it was able to contribute to the war effort in Antioch and Jerusalem. In addition to raiding and crusading, Genoa also began her long and bitter rivalry with Venice around this time. Characters like Enrico Pescatore (“Henry the Fisherman”), a pirate who raided the Lebanese coast and seized Venetian trading ships in 1205 certainly didn’t endear himself to Venice. His exploits were celebrated by Genoese troubadours and he was granted trading rights from the Count of Tripoli for his efforts. Walton also recounted how the Genoan’s captured Marco Polo and held him prisoner; although due to his fame, he was treated much better than most Venetians in their care.

Portrait of Genoese legend, Andrea Doria as Neptune, by Angelo Bronzino (1550-1555). Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.
Portrait of Genoese legend, Andrea Doria as Neptune, by Angelo Bronzino (1550-1555). Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

Admirals and Adventurers

Of course, there is an entire chapter devoted to Andrea Doria (1466-1560), the sea faring Genoese legend. How could there not be? Andrea Doria is Genoa’s Lord Nelson. He fought alongside the king of Spain, Charles V (1500-1558), and remained a thorn in the side of the pirate Barbary Corsairs well into his 80s. He personified Genoa – the good, the bad and the ugly. “Admiral Doria was a warrior and a fearsome opponent, but he was also very Genoese, and that meant he was a shrewd business man”. Walton even cheekily entitled Doria’s chapter, ‘The Steve Jobs of the Mediterranean’ to drive the point home.

No book on Genoa would be complete without touching on its intrepid adventurers; the Genoese were behind many important discoveries. Walton of course discusses Genoa’s favourite sons, John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto, 1450-1500) and Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), but adds other lesser known voyagers to the mix, like Nicoloso da Recco the 14th century Genosese explorer who claimed the Azores for Portugal, Lancelotto Malocello who gave his name to the island of Lanzarote in the Canary islands, and later nineteenth century adventurers, Enrico and Luigi Albertis.

Pirates, Plagues and Slaves

Walton certainly doesn’t shy away from discussing some of Genoa’s less glamorous moments. This book is definitely not a one-sided, fault-free endorsement of Genoa; for all it’s glory and global contributions, there is a dark side to Genoan history and it’s all bared here. The Genoese were highly active in the slave trade during the Middle Ages. Human trafficking gave Genoa some of its largest profits during this period. The Genoan’s were also not exempt from warring amongst themselves, and Walton details the violence that was rife in the city during the 13th and 14th centuries between patrician families like the Spinolas and the Dorias, bringing the fight between the Gulephs and the Ghibellines to Genoa. The Genoese also have the dubious honour of bringing the Black Death to Europe. Genoese merchants attempting to escape the plague unwittingly brought it back on their ships to Constantinople where is spread through Europe like wildfire, decimating the population. Walton gives a grim, but quintessentially Italian anecdote of the plague’s effects; I will never look at lasagne the same way again.

“In the morning when a large number of bodies were found in the pit, they took some earth and shovelled it down on top of them, and later others were placed on top of them and then another layer of earth, just as one makes lasagne with pasta and cheese”

Walton’s book is filled with marvellous snippets such as these that add a colourful flourish to the city’s history. He covers Genoa from its humble beginnings after the fall of Rome, to its ebb and flow as a maritime empire, its brush with Napoleon, its dalliances with French and Spanish powers, its love affair with Pesto, its pivotal role in the Italian Risorgimento, Mussolini and the Genoa of the present day.

This is far from a dusty, dry history text or simple travel guide. The lively  Genoese stories, along with Walton’s humorous modern day accounts are brilliantly woven together making this book an absolute pleasure to read. Historian and traveller alike will find remarkable information crammed within its 218 pages. Walton gives an outstanding account of centuries of Genoese life and sheds an important light on the contributions made by this fearless city to the annals of Italian history.

~Sandra Alvarez

Follow Nicholas Walton on Twitter: @npw99

Click here to visit Nicholas Walton’s blog

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