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


Genoa is a maritime theatre. Like a Greek theatre, the Apennines branch from the Alps, dramatically framing this natural, semi-circular harbor, the center of Liguria, one of the most “picturesque” regions of Italy. Rugged mountain passes insulate Genoa and its smaller coastal dependencies from the rich Po river valley of Lombardy to the north, pushing these port settlements toward the sea, the source of their wealth and fame. The Bisagno and Polcevera valleys slice into Genoa on east and west, only partially relieving the dense, restricted, vertical landscape from the harbor to the mountains above. Narrow coastal plains and harbor enclaves interrupt the mountainous cascade into the sea. This rough terrain is punctuated by medieval family castles and religious sanctuaries, which divided the landscape into local fiefs (feudi), overlaid by Renaissance and Baroque terraced villas, gardens, and farms, all facing the sea. These aristocratic residences tower over small fishing villages and maritime trading centers, lacking sufficient agricultural production and therefore dependent on external import to support the population from other parts of Italy and the Mediterranean. The result is a social, political, economic, and cultural emporium of diverse influences from northern Europe and the Mediterranean.

Genoa always faced the sea. Shrouded in fragmentary archaeological and literary evidence, Genua probably originated in the sixth century B.C. as a Ligurian settlement of warriors, fishermen and shepherds, based upon Bronze Age technology. In the first century A.D., Strabo (Geography, 4, 6) mentioned “Genua, the emporium of the Ligures” as the center of the Ingauni and Intemelii tribes who settled the Ligurian coast. These coastal-hilltown centers were already controlled by the Romans during the Second Punic War against Hannibal in northern Italy ca. 218 B.C. (Livy, History of Rome, 21, 32); and connected to Rome and the republican empire by the extension of the Via Aurelia up the west coast of Italy through Pisae and Genua to Massilia and the western provinces. During the Third Punic War, the Via Postumia (148 B.C.) linked Genua inland to Lombardy and Emilia, piercing the mountain passes for military and commercial trade with the northern and northeastern provinces. This military-commercial network became the basis for Genoa’s future role as strategic entry port into northern Italy with its strong cultural ties to Lombardy. Genua became a crossroads between sea and land.

Genua’s early development from a Ligurian fortified-agrarian hilltown to a Roman trading-entry port of secondary importance is traced in the urban plan. In the southeast portion of the medieval city, above the small finger of land protecting the old harborfront (Ripa), the twelfth-century church of Santa Maria di Castello stands at the center of the ovoid, acropolis plan of the Ligurian Castrum, which outlines the original street and defensive wall system. This inward-oriented fortress culture was opened up by the Roman grid plan of the Civitas, a colony laid out to the north beneath the acropolis during the second century B.C., directly on the waterfront. Despite conquests and sacks by Lombards, Franks, and Saracens in the seventh and eighth centuries, the Ligurian Castrum and Roman Civitas were expanded by the linear-radial pattern of the medieval Burgus, trading suburbs (faubourgs) extending northward along the coast, during the tenth through the early fourteenth centuries, what Roberto Lopez called the “commercial revolution” of the Middle Ages. These three divisions (Castrum, Civitas, Burgus) were united within the succession of medieval city walls of the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, linked by arcades, streets and marketplaces to the harbor and sea, which in effect became the “piazza” of the medieval city.

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