The Romans referred to a small settlement that grew up beside an “official” site as a vicus, so for example in the UK it is common to find as much archaeology outside a Roman fort as inside, for the presence of a Roman garrison, also meant that locals had a market for their trades and services, in particular those that military do not supply themselves but which would be in demand amongst a large male population. They were static camp followers. In England this is reflected in place names featuring wick or wich (Gatwick, Norwich, Aldwych etc).
Genoa’s history predates the Romans, though in that era there was a settlement here (sacked during the Punic Wars) so naturally enough Roman roads. A series of tiny vici sprang up around churches that were built along one of these routes, and of course as these grew they merged into one; the area of town that fills the space between the opulence of Via Garibaldi and the old port.
With such old origins the streets are narrow, and whilst the original houses and workshops here would have been single or double storey constructions, now they are much taller so light is reduced too. The area is now a warren where you can easily get lost, until you apply the logic that going downhill will always bring you back to the port.
The churches that were the original focal points are still there (or later version of the same church) so a wanderer will happen upon San Siro, San Luca, San Pietro and more, some of which will feature in future Genoese posts. One of the churches gives its name to the whole area. The church of St Mary Magdalene, or in Italian, Santa Maria Maddalena.
With its proximity to the port, this became an area populated by gangsters in the years following WWII and apparently is still controlled by “organised crime”, though I was blithely unaware of this at the time of my visit. The area features a lot of small craft workshops, as well as macellerie, butcher’s shops that your nose alerts you to before you round the corner with your eyes.
All perfectly innocent, but I became aware of something else. Or someone else.
As I walked these alleys on the rainy days I noticed women, standing on corners or on the threshold of dark passages and sheltering beneath umbrellas, yet they were making no effort to go indoors or seek shelter. In fact the only time any of them moved from their patch was when they noticed the ubiquitous long lens that accompanies my travels. Then they would run around the nearest corner where they would wait until the coast was clear.
Once aware of their presence I started to recognise prostitutes regularly in the city; something I’ve never been aware of elsewhere in Italy (though of course I realise that prostitution is widespread). In Genoa they were far more overt.
Italy is currently in economic crisis, their largest bank is at risk (ironic since banking began in this city) and they are dealing with a constant tide of migration from North Africa who recognise Italy as the nearest crossing point to get into Europe. Perhaps this is the perfect storm which has brought it to the surface, or perhaps it is historical. This is a port city after all, and many of those camp followers who formed a vicus would have been selling sexual services. And there’s one more resonance here. Though there is no supporting reference to this in the four Gospels, in the middle ages Western Christian tradition portrayed Mary Magdalene as a reformed prostitute. (Interestingly she is only mentioned four times in all the gospels with no reference to her profession!)