This essay on Medieval Genoa is written by Professor Stephen A. Epstein of the History Department of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Professor George L. Gorse of the Art History Department of Pomona College, Claremont, CA


After visiting Genoa in 1352, Petrarch (Le familiari, 14, 5, 23-5) wrote an important, early humanist laudation to city life, stressing the close relationship of Genoa to Nature and the landscape in an idealized, Virgilian pastoral-arcadian mode: “[Genoa] seemed to me not an earthly place, but a celestial abode which the poets place in the Elysian Fields, as the peaks of the hills [rise] with their amenable paths [above] the fertile little valleys and in these valleys [live] happy people. Who would not have gazed with amazement from high [on the surrounding hills] at the towers and palaces, nature vanquished by man, the rough hills covered by citrons, vineyards and olive groves, the buildings of marble at the foot of the hills, second to no one in royalty and enviable to any city?”

Art and architecture in medieval Genoa played a major role in creating this idealized, Golden Age classical image of the city–a rebirth of Mediterranean trading cities, to cite Henri Pirenne–in symbiotic relationship to its natural harbor site: a maritime theatre of art representing the particular interests of business, family, religious and communal patrons. Three themes are central to Genoese medieval art and architecture: appropriation, spoliation, and transformation.

From its Lombard background and Mediterranean ascent, Genoa appropriated diverse cultures, representing its feudal and commercial development; while spoliation became a defining element of its artistic landscape and historical narrative (see Caffaro and Embriaco). From the First Crusade of 1097-1104 through the Fourth Crusade and Latin occupation of Constantinople in 1204-62, Genoa fiercely competed with Pisa and Venice for the despoliation of Byzantine and Muslim sacred sites, the “translation” of Mediterranean power to the West. This literally transformed Genoa (as it did Pisa and Venice) “from a city of austere stone and wood to one of marble” (to paraphrase Suetonius on Augustan Rome).

French, Lombard, Byzantine and Islamic influences merged in the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, the major civic-ecclesiastical commission of the medieval period. Rebuilt from the early twelfth through the early sixteenth centuries, the Cathedral’s Lombard Romanesque-Gothic-and Early Renaissance styles embodied its cultural ties to northern Italy–in particular Milan, the stone quarries of Lake Como, and Certosa di Pavia–from which Lombard stonemasons, sculptors, painters, and master builders came to Genoa and dominated the local culture, forming their own guilds of “Maestri Antelami” (parallel to the less prominent arti genovesi), supervising and strongly influencing the cathedral works and other Ligurian commissions. The black and white marble decoration of the Cathedral, quarried in Promontorio (Val Polcevera) and Carrara, reflects this Lombard-Comese tradition, highlighting the massive religious center above the dense medieval port.

Petrarch and other travellers praised the black and white marble facades of Genoese palaces and churches as distinctive features of its urban display, towering within the harbor enclosure. This urban scenography rivalled Venice’s sumptuous palace and church marble facades: classical spoils defining public spaces in Byzantine orientation. In contrast to Venice’s San Marco with its luminous Byzantine baldachin style and theatrical triumphal-arch entry sequence, Genoa’s San Lorenzo faces west: a Lombard Romanesque-Gothic longitudinal church of northern Italy, competing in size and grandeur with other Italian and European cities, trumpeting Genoa’s rise to an archbishopric in 1123, a proper place for sacred relics stolen by crusaders, which became the ceremonial focus of communal development.

Within the towering Romanesque black and white nave sanctuary, gold and silver chalices, censors, emerald plates and ivory figurines, jewel-studded crosses and precious reliquaries, sumptuous vestments and fabrics of Byzantine, Muslim, and Asian origin served as liturgical implements and even sacred objects of worship: booty of Mediterranean conquest, signs of divine favor. Miracle working icons, such as the “Volto Santo”, the cloisonné gold relief framed image of Veronica’s Veil of Christ, housed in the Convent of San Bartolomeo degli Armeni, served as examples of Byzantine “sacred art” to Genoese and Lombard artists. These became the sacred objects of communal pagaentry and processions during feast days, crises and victories, described by Caffaro’s annals.

Within San Lorenzo, the ashes of St. John the Baptist, taken by crusaders from Mira in 1097, added a new patron saint (of water) to Genoa, rivalling Florence. The Baptist joined St. Lawrence (a remnant of Genoa’s early ties to Rome and Ambrosian Milan), the Virgin Mary (ever a favorite of medieval Marian worshippers), and the crusading St. George as spiritual protectors and intercessors for this unruly crusading port. Carved and painted images of the patron saints, in particular St. George, appeared throughout Genoa in lively Byzantine, Lombard, and International Gothic styles over portals and within chapels, “sanctifying” this alliance of church, family, and commune to military crusade and commerce in the East. The presence of the saint was ubiquitous to urban life. Even today, the relics of the Baptist are taken from their chapel in the Cathedral on the feast day of his Nativity (June 24), and processed in their late Gothic reliquary by the archbishop and communal government to the harborfront for a Mass and ceremonial “blessing of the sea”, Genoa’s rival version of Venice’s “Sposalizio al Mare”. Art and architecture shaped the public and private life of medieval Genoa (see Caffaro).

Approaching the triumphal entrance facade of San Lorenzo with deeply splayed portals and spiral colonnette clusters from the early thirteenth century, one sees the first appearance of the French Gothic style in Italy, studded by colored glass, stones, and decorative patterns, characteristic of Byzantine and Muslim Mediterranean influences. Genoese spolia from Roman and Byzantium remains, including columns and sculptural reliefs, were mounted on the church facades and within the sanctuary, to celebrate Genoa’s ancient foundations and competition with Venice for Mediterranean dominion. This “sacred city” was announced on the central portal by flanking rampant Lions, the Tree of Jesse and Incarnation pilaster reliefs, supporting the solemn tympanum figure of Christ and the Last Judgment above the Martyrdom of St. Lawrence: a prefiguration of salvation at the high altar and reflection of diverse stylistic influences (and religious-political ties) from the Tree of Life on the medieval papal church of Orvieto to the Last Judgment tympanum reliefs of the Île de France, Chartres and Nôtre Dame.

By communal regulation, black and white marble facades were reserved for major churches, such as the Cathedral and the late-thirteenth-century mendicant churches of San Francesco di Castelletto and San Domenico (both destroyed by urban expansion during the 1860s); but also for rival old noble families, such as the Guelf Fieschi and Grimaldi and Ghibelline Doria (see Doria) and Spinola, who rebuilt their urban family neighborhoods (alberghi) and country retreats (feudi) during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the period of conflict for control of the weak communal government and unstable rivieras. As in Venice, Genoese marble display, spoliation, and commemorative inscriptions became distinctive elements of ecclesiastical, civic, and old noble power, celebrating their crusades and naval victories over Pisa and Venice.

The short-lived government of Guglielmo Boccanegra (1256-62) built the first communal palace (later Palazzo San Giorgio) directly on the harborfront, the “piazza” of medieval Genoa, in 1260, thirty years before the communal palace and piazza of Florence. Designed by the clerical-architect, Frate Oliverio, who is identified by inscription and date on the entrance portal, the Lombard-Gothic block form set the style of Genoese palaces, inspired by the communal palaces of northern Italy (e.g., Como). Crenellations with the Cross of St. George, the crusading saint and insignia of Genoa; Gothic arcades, hard stone and brick facades with black and white marble fenestration, defined the polychrome style of the communal government in competition with old noble patrons. According to a contemporary continuator of Caffaro, the Byzantine Emperor Michael Paleologus gave the Genoese “a large and ample palace [in Constantinople] in the form of a castle that the Veneti occupied in that city,” in gratitude for their support against Venice in lifting the Latin occupation in 1262; and “the Genoese, among the clamor of trumpets, bugles and horns, tore down that palace to the foundations, and they transported certain stones to Genoa in their ships, of which several were placed in the casa del Comune built on the harborfront.” Art and architecture, through ceremony, blend with military and church history in creating new civic narratives.

In 1291, the Boccanegra palace was converted into the Dogana (customs house), and in 1407 to the Banco di San Giorgio during the French reforms of Jean Le Meingre, Maréchal de Boucicaut. With the period of old noble feudal conflict, a new Palazzo Ducale was constructed inland, among the narrow, protected streets near the Cathedral of San Lorenzo in 1290, in a rusticated-fortress style with campanile, contemporary with other communal town halls in central Italy. The Palazzo Ducale and the family alberghi neighborhoods of Genoa became the locus of patronage for the “perpetual Doges” and foreign rulers, and the old noble families, who controlled the city through their military, economic, and political power. Entire districts, such as the thirteenth-century family church and neighborhood of the Doria family at Piazza San Matteo, preserve the private character of medieval art and architecture in Genoa, an unheralded anticipation of the comprehensive, balanced, symmetrical Renaissance urban planning of Leon Battista Alberti, a Florentine born and raised in Genoa.

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