Gobsmacked (gob-smakt, adj., chiefly British): 1. Utterly astounded; astonished 2. Reaction of even world travelers upon their first visit to Genoa
Yeah, Dictionary.com sure got that right; we were blown away by Genoa. It’s a city of great palaces, wonderful art, twisting pedestrian lanes called caruggi, and some of the best food we’ve eaten anywhere. Names like Caravaggio, Columbus, and Grimaldi spring up all over its history. Did I mention pesto, which originated here? Basically it’s a city that was once one of the most powerful in Europe and now has the remnants of that glory available to the small number of tourists who pass through. It’s a trip very much worth making.Genoa (Genova, to the Italians) emerged as an Italian city-state in the Middle Ages; along with Venice, Pisa, and Amalfi it was one of the key maritime republics. Over time it developed one of the most powerful navies in the Mediterranean and developed close trading relations with the Ottomans; later it became a major player as the slave trade. At its zenith in the 16th century it was also a center for Renaissance art as the home at times for such luminaries as Rubens, Caravaggio, and Van Dyck. The great families of the time, the Spinolas and Grimaldis and Dorias, among others, built fabulous palaces during those years, many of which still stand.
(If that name Grimaldi looks familiar, yup, that’s the same Grimaldi family that has ruled Monaco for a few hundred years. After a family feud one branch got fed up and moved down the coast a ways. Seems to have worked out pretty well for them.)
As all great powers learn eventually, though, the good times don’t last forever. As world trade moved from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic – spurred, of course, by Genoa’s native son Christopher Columbus – and assisted by a healthy dose of the plague, decline began to set in. By the end of the 18th century Genoa was annexed by Napoleonic France before, in the Congress of Vienna, it was ceded to Piedmont and the House of Savoy (this was, of course, decades before the unification of Italy).
Fast forward a couple hundred years, then, and here we are in this once grand city. It’s been through some tough years but particularly over the last 20 years or so has bounced back well. The old palaces are museums and hotels and apartment buildings now. The winding caruggi create an incredible atmosphere. They’re maybe 12 feet wide and remarkably clean, compared to Naples at least. The narrowness and big buildings all around create a cool, almost protected space for wandering, usually somewhat lost. There’s upscale shopping and decidedly downscale shopping, too. Indonesian and Peruvian restaurants. A surprising number of recent West African immigrants adding an exotic feel to the place and beautiful fruit and vegetable markets scattered everywhere. And speckled all through the old city are a remarkable number of small-to-tiny Italian restaurants, each one seemingly better than the previous one.What were some of our favorite experiences? To be sure, just wandering around was a highlight; it seemed as though every minute one of us would nudge the other and point, gawking, “Look at that building.” The first day we were walking around and, to our surprise, saw a huge poster for an exhibit “From the Impressionists to Picasso” from, of all places, the Detroit Institute of Art. Some 50 or 55 pieces from their collection that document that 50-year transition. It was actually a fabulous exhibit, explained really clearly with some amazing pieces.
For us, at least, that begged another of those museum questions: why was so much of Detroit’s art in Genoa? Is it that they have so many fabulous pieces they can miss these 50-odd works and it doesn’t really matter? Or is it that with so few tourists in Detroit (I’m just guessing, but it’s plausible) they need to make money somehow and this is purely a financial angle? Either way, it was a great opportunity to see some of Detroit’s treasures in a Genoan palace.
One of the things I love about wandering around these museums is that every so often you encounter something new, an artist you’ve never heard of. That happened to us as we toured the DIA exhibit and came across a self portrait by Otto Dix. Neither of us had ever heard of him, but the piece was stunning. With a little research after we got back we learned that he’d done the self portrait before going off to fight in World War I and that his subsequent art wasn’t quite so calm or easy.In fact, his 1923 painting The Trench, which depicted dismembered and decomposed bodies of soldiers after a battle, caused such a furore that the Wallraf-Richartz Museum hid the painting behind a curtain. In 1925 the then-mayor of Cologne, Konrad Adenauer, cancelled the purchase of the painting and forced the director of the museum to resign. One American curator in 1931 described it as “Perhaps the most famous picture in post-war Europe … a masterpiece of unspeakable horror.”
Now I was really curious to see this Trench, but apparently that’s not possible. The Nazis, you see, considered Dix’s work high on their list of “degenerate art.” And while it appears to have survived early bonfires – a bill of sale seems to prove it existed at least until 1940 – there’s been not a trace of it since then. Other pieces of his that survived, though, suggest that he really didn’t like his war experiences.
Rather than ending on that down note, there was a classic Italian moment when we were trying to get tickets to the Palazzo Rosso, one of the classic palace-turned-museums. Tickets are sold at a bookshop across the street from the museum but we couldn’t find it. When we asked a uniformed city official who worked right next door he explained that it wasn’t open yet. It was 10 AM, though, and the museum opens at 9; what gives? “Sleep,” he tells us. The person who’s supposed to open the bookstore was still sleeping. An hour after opening time! Didn’t anyone in the museum notice that no one was coming in? Eventually, museum staff just let us in without a ticket.
Finally, I should add a word about Genoese food. Wow! Like I said, the home of pesto, and the pesto we had was simply the best we’ve ever had anywhere. I had a bowl of minestrone soup for lunch one day that was some of the best soup I’ve had anywhere, but the dab of fresh pesto on top may have made it simply the best soup ever. There was a downside to Genoese food; they put potatoes in, on, or under just about everything. That aside, though, it seemed as though every eight- or 10-table trattoria we stumbled into was perfect, with great wines for maybe $12 or $15 a bottle.
Genoa is high on our “gotta go back” list.