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


The classical Genua was a modest Roman provincial town at the head of the gulf of Liguria, and on the great Via Julia Augusta, the coastal road connecting Italy and the western provinces. With the collapse of the empire in the western Mediterranean region in the fifth century, Genoa became part of the Ostrogothic kingdom. From 537 to 42 the Byzantines ruled the city and probably established its maritime traditions. The periods of Lombard (641/2-774) and Carolingian (774-ninth century) rule are the most obscure in Genoa’s history. Muslim raiders from North Africa sacked Genoa in 934/5. No local records survived this attack, and the city may have been abandoned for a few years.

A document from 958 reveals a refounded town eager to reassert local laws and property rights. Local nobles, the bishop, and townspeople struggled for power and Genoa’s theoretical overlords, the kings of Italy and Obertenghi and Malaspina lords of Liguria, were usually occupied elsewhere. By 1016 the city’s naval strength had recovered and it joined with Pisa in attacking Muslims on nearby Sardinia. A charter of 1056 reveals that the Genoese enjoyed a generous measure of self-rule, but the city’s actual governing institutions remained unknown, until the medieval commune emerged in 1099. In that year, the historian Caffaro informs us, a compagna, or sworn association of citizens, was established, and six consuls from the neighborhoods constituted the commune’s executive. Probably a formal town government had existed since the late eleventh century. Genoa’s extensive preparations for the big fleets that headed to the Holy Land to join the First Crusade in 1097 and 1100 explain the need to place the government on a sound footing when so many thousands of citizens would be absent. This crusade helped the Genoese gain valuable trading privileges and possessions in the newly established Latin states.

In the twelfth century the Genoese continued to administer their city through a board of consuls, usually a mix of nobles and prosperous merchants. The consul’s job was to foster Genoese trade overseas by securing commercial privileges and occasionally by fighting the Pisans, Genoa’s main rival in this period. Locally, the consuls extended the commune’s authority over the nobles and smaller towns like Savona, Ventimiglia, and Portofino in Liguria. The consuls also presided over the taxes needed to defend Genoa’s interests, and the judicial system necessary to resolve commercial disputes and keep the peace among an increasingly unruly merchant elite, headed by the della Volta clan. By 1130 the city controlled the Ligurian coast from San Remo in the west to Portofino in the east, as well as the mountain passes to the north. In 1133 the papacy raised the city to an archbishopric. By mid-century the Emperor Frederick Barbarosa’s ambitions in Italy threatened Genoa’s independence, and the citizens built the first great circle of walls around the city in 1158 and gained its virtual independence from the empire in a charter of 1162. The rest of the century witnessed increased civil strife among familial clans, and wars with Pisa over supremacy in Corsica and Sardinia. In 1190, again coinciding with a naval effort overseas, the Third Crusade, the Genoese abolished the old commune and established a regime of a podesta, a professional city manager, invariably a foreigner. Impartial rule was supposed to dampen local feuds and ensure justice.

Genoa settled own under rule by a podesta in the early thirteenth century, and he also became responsible for commanding the city’s land forces. Genoa’s increasing prosperity through trade drew it into more instant rivalries with the Venetians in the eastern Mediterranean and the Catalans and Provencals in the west. In Italy Genoa became involved in the wars between the Ghibellines, supporters of the Emperor Frederick II, and the Guelfs, his opponents and allies of the papacy. Genoa became a Guelf town because its ambitions in southern Italy and fears of Frederick’s territorial aims in the north mad the papacy the natural ally, especially its native son, the canonist Sinibaldo Fieschi, who became Pope Innocent IV in 1243. A Ghibelline party existed in Genoa, and in the subject towns of Liguria.

The emperor’s death in 1250 brought victory to Genoa’s side, but economic problems after the wars, and inept leadership in a trade war with Venice in the east, fostered a popular revolt in 1257. The popolo, middling merchants and master artisans largely excluded from political life, established a regime under Guglielmo Boccanegra, who ruled as captain of the people until 1262. His regime pursued policies favored by the popolo, established advantageous ties with the Byzantines, reformed the public debt and taxes, and began building a secular, administrative center, the present Palazzo San Giorgio. Nobles and some popolo overthrew the captain and Genoa uneasily reverted to rule by a podesta. Genoa opposed Charles of Anjou and Guelf domination in Italy, largely because French domination to the west of Liguria and in Naples and Sicily threatened its security and trade. Continued trouble with Pisa over Sardinia also provoked war. These external challenges caused a change in government in 1270, when the nobles Oberto Spinola and Oberto Doria, representing the leading Ghibelline families, became captains of the people and de facto rulers of Genoa. A Gulf party, under the Grimaldi and Fieschi families, remained in the city, but the opponents of the Angevins dominated the city down to 1317. These years witnessed famous victories over Genoa’s rivals. The Pisans were crushed at Meloria in 1284, and the Venetians at Curzola in 1298. Pisa never again threatened Genoa, but Venice was still a powerful rival.

Continued rivalries between Guelfs and Ghibelline nobles, with the restive popolo usually siding with the latter, produced periods of anarchy in 1296 and continued disorders into the fourteenth century. The political leaders tried to solve its domestic ills by submitting to foreign rule in 1311 by handing the city and its possessions over to the Emperor Henry VII. This experiment ended with the emperor’s death in 1313. From 1314 to 1331 the city was nominally Guelf but experienced protracted and costly civil war, damaging overseas commerce and the Ligurian countryside. From 1318 to 1335 another invited foreigner, Robert King of Naples, ruled the Guelf capital. Weary Genoese in 1331 ended the civil war, allowed Robert to remain in nominal rule, divided governmental offices equally between Guelfs and Ghibellines, and consolidated the huge debts of both sides into a great new funded debt. Civil strife resurfaced in 1335, Robert of Naples resigned, and two noble captains ruled the city. In 1339 the Ghibelline popolo rose against the nobles and Simone Boccanegra, a grandnephew of Guglielmo, became doge for life. This new system of government, partly inspired by the Venetian model, established a strong executive doge who served for life and presided over a bureaucracy and advisory bodies. This regime favored the merchants and people, and set about reducing the crushing burden of debt, pacifying Liguria, and fostering trade. Although a revolt turned Boccanegra out in 1344, he was replaced by another doge and himself returned to office in 1356. From 1339 to 1528, Genoa alternated between self rule under its “perpetual doges” chosen for life but almost invariably overthrown, brief lived republics, and foreign rule.

The plague of 1348 devastated Genoa, and its military strength, much reduced, was never again able to defeat Venice. After the disastrous defeat at Chioggia in 1380, Genoa became a second-rate naval power. Continued civil strife and incompetent rule, largely under Antoniotto Adorno, four times elected doge for life between 1378 and 1394, led to Genoa again submitting to foreign rule, by Charles VI of France from 1396 to 1409. These periods of external rule seldom brought Genoa peace, because its local institutions continued to function poorly, and a royal governor substituted for the weak doge. This phase of French rule supplied one effective governor, Jean Le Meingre Marshal of France, called Boucicaut, who ruled sternly for eight years. His lasting accomplishments were the new comprehensive code of law, and the founding in 1406 of the Casa San Giorgio. This institution, originally intended to consolidate Genoa’s vast public debt, became in the course of the fifteenth century the city’s most important body, as it controlled public credit and functioned as a state bank and chief tax collector. Machiavelli called the Casa San Giorgio “the state within the state” because of its extensive political and economic powers.

In 1409 a revolt ended French rule, and much of this century and into the next witnessed a bewildering series of revolts and dogeships by the rival Fregoso and Adorno families. Again Genoa resorted to long periods of foreign rule by the Dukes of Milan (1421-35, 1464-78, 1487-99) and the Kings of France (1458-61, 1499-1507). Genoa’s own interests were subordinated to French or Milanese ambitions, and it increasingly became a pawn in the rivalry between France and Spain for control over Italy. After a disastrous sack in 1522 by Spanish forces, and the defeat of the French in 1525, Andrea Doria’s coup of 1528 established Genoa as an aristocratic and client state of Spain.