The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’
Shakespeare: Henry V
I usually feel at home in Italy, but in Genoa there was an additional element that contributed to this (and not the red carpet in many of the alleys, which was not a concession to VIP visitors, but an anti-slip device when the steeper sections rendered unsafe by the rain). No, I refer to the preponderance of red and white (thankfully not Sunderland football shirts). Everywhere I went I saw the flag of St George.
Was some English dignitary or politician in town? Were it a member of the Royal Family I would have expected a Union flag, so who else might justify this gesture?
I soon spotted more permanent references to the dragon-slayer so the idea that these flags were some sort of tribute then evaporated. St George is not just England’s patron saint. Despite the cathedral being dedicated to Saint Lawrence (Lorenzo), and it’s treasury claiming ownership of St John, Genoa adopted St George, probably in the 11th century. The saint was popular during the crusades as a fellow warrior and this might have influenced the Genoese decision. The city’s flag was a red cross on a white background, and over time the two became conflated . (Prior to this the flag of St George had actually depicted the saint).
One of Genoa’s notable buildings, the Palazzo San Giorgio was built in 1260 in a smart piece of triumphalism. The materials used were from a demolished embassy in Constantinople; an embassy built by Genoa’s bitter maritime rivals the Venetians. At one point the building was used as a prison where a famous Venetian was held after his capture in battle. Here he dictated stories of his life to a fellow inmate in what was to become a famous memoir; The Travels of Marco Polo. (The building’s decorative frescoes are far more recent feature and date back to the 19th century)
The English connection seemingly came about when our most famous crusader, Richard the Lionheart, claimed the protection of St George in battle at least a century later than the Genoese, and the link wasn’t formalised until the reign of Edward III in the 14th century.
How ironic then that the more xenophobic and Eurosceptic citizens of my country should wrap themselves in the flag of St George, a flag that we appear to have purloined from a European city-state. For some, like the English Defence League, the fact that this is the same flag under which the crusaders sought to capture the Holy Land from Islam might have added resonance (though they should remember that two centuries of conflict resulted in failure for those under the red and white flag). I suspect that the irony would be lost on them.