Arboreal Oblation (Confeugo)

Before my trip to Genoa I downloaded a guide to Christmas events taking place in the city from the official tourism site for the city. To say it was comprehensive was an understatement.  I decided to save some trees and save it to my phone to carry rather than opt for paper, and perhaps this was just as well.

Partly due to my limited Italian, but mostly due to the sheer volume of events listed, I found it hard to tell what might be an item of cultural significance from what was a few stalls erected to capture a slice of the festive market, and so I nearly missed the Confeugo.

I was down in the Porto Antico when I spotted a woman in a historical outfit, and in watching her for a moment or two spotted others in similar garb chatting together in small groups.  Moving in their direction I found a group of younger citizens in matching blue and white outfits carrying large square flags.

Their general direction of travel seemed to be towards Piazza Ferrari so I hurried ahead of them in case they were going to make some sort of spectacular entrance.  On arrival there were crowds building outside the Doge’s palace and a band setting up (also costumed).  By pure chance I’d happened on an annual event which dates back to the 14th Century, and probably much earlier.

As far as I can tell the history of the event is for the local populace to pay tribute to their lord and master (the Doge back in 1339, nowadays the Mayor) each Christmas.  Traditionally the Abbot of The People presented a laurel tree decked in red & white ribbons (representing the Genoan flag) to the Doge, who in act which seem particularly lacking in gratitude set the tree alight.  Unfazed by this the locals would vie to get an ember or two to take home for good luck.

When Napoleon took control of the city in the late 18th century he put an end to the tradition, but it was revived in 1923 by an association who aimed to preserve and restore local traditions, and today it is a representative of that association who represents the people.

The term Confeugo confuses me though.  At first I misread it as Confuego, a Spanish term meaning “with fire”, appropriate enough, and given the fluid nature of alliances and borders throughout Genoa’s history a little spagnolo would not be out of place, but my not so handy festival guide was clear that this was the Confeugo.  The word doesn’t appear in my Italian reference guide, but break it down into con + feugo and you get “With focus”.  I’m none the wiser.

Perhaps I can’t see the wood for the trees.


Getting Around and Getting It Wrong

If like me you’ve been to Milan, then you’re doubtless familiar with the world’s oldest shopping mall. Even those who’ve never been may well have seen pictures of the intersecting glass roofed arcades that are populated by famous caffé shops and top end fashion houses. McDonalds were famously refused the renewal of their lease, allowing Prada to open a second store in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Galleria Mazzini, Genoa


Teatro Carlo Felice, Genoa

Genoa also has its galleria, but before you get too excited about a high class shopping experience as part of your visit to the city I should warn you of two problems. Yes, there is a covered shopping arcade; the Galleria Mazzini, but this is a tired affair that suffered from the bombing of the nearby theatre in WWII. Though the Teatro Carlo Felice was restored in the 90’s the intervening decades made the Galleria less attractive, and nowadays the fashion houses can be found in a nearby street.

Exiting Galleria Mazzini to Via Roma, Genoa


But then there’s the Galleria Nino Bixio, and the Galleria Giuseppe Garibaldi. Even more disappointing to the keen shopper, these are very different structures but with a very important role to fulfil. Galleria is also the Italian word for tunnel.

Galleria Nino Bixio, Genoa

I’ve described the city’s narrow medieval streets before; streets that are totally unsuitable for modern vehicles and certainly not goods vehicles. Deliveries are made by small, mostly electric carts, but moving produce to and from the port requires good roads. These tunnels were built in the 19th century for trams, but early in the 20th were enlarged to allow other road users to by-pass the rabbit warren of La Maddalena.

There is a more significant traffic artery and one that blights the city. Skirting the edge of the newly redeveloped Porto Antico is a hideous flyover, built in the reconstruction period following the war, and bisecting any view of the city from the port (and vice versa). I’m sure those heading for the beautiful coastal ports of the Cinque Terre are grateful for being able to drive over rather than through Genoa, but for those in Italy’s sixth largest city it’s an eyesore. No matter how much you might try to decorate it.

But if you came for the shopping you probably don’t care about that!

Nautical Notoriety

Columbus isn’t Genoa’s only notable sailor. Fifteen years after his birth an arguably greater man was born in the city.  Greater because his reputation hasn’t been tarnished in the same way as his predecessor, but also because not only was he the Republic of Genoa’s admiral, Andrea Doria was also the leader of their land based forces and liberated the city from French occupation which enabled him to establish a new constitution. Based on his success he was offered the role of Doge, an honour he declined in favour of becoming “censor” which was seemingly just as influential.  He was immensely wealthy and left his riches to his great nephew as we saw at the Palazzo Doria Tursi.

Unsurprisingly he has given his name to a number of vessels over the years, just as the UK has had a number of HMS Nelsons and America its USS John Paul Jones.  In Doria’s case they haven’t all been warships (remember this?) and there was a very notable exception.

The Cristoforo Colombo departing Genoa on her ...
The Cristoforo Colombo departing Genoa on her maiden voyage. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With huge losses to her merchant fleet in the war, Italy sought to restore her reputation in the early 50’s by commissioning the construction of two luxury ocean liners; SS Cristoforo Colombo and SS Andrea Doria, both built in Genoa of course.  A far cry from the oar-powered galleys commanded by the medieval admiral.

The Andrea Doria was the first to be built, with an emphasis on Italian style.  Writing in The New York Times in 1953, Aline Bernstein referred to American ships as “minimal and sparse”, English ships as “provincial” but praised the partnership between architects, designers and artists that produced the Andrea Doria’s look, from mural covered walls to the details of stationery, crockery etc.

Designs for the SS Andrea Doria
Recreation of the listing deck – very difficult to walk on.

This picture of 50’s glamour came to an abrupt end on the night of the 25th July 1956 when in heavy fog off Nantucket, the Andrea Doria was struck by another liner, the MS Stockholm, in a way that almost mirrored the ramming tactics of Admiral Doria’s galleys.

One of America’s worst shipping disasters saw 46 passengers and crew killed, though thankfully the calm actions of captain and crew aided an effective evacuation that saved the lives of 1660 others from a vessel listing so badly as to render half of the lifeboats useless.  A row of testimonials from the official inquiry lines a wall in Genoa’s Maritime Museum in memorial to the casualties.

On the morning of the 26th July, about 11 hours after the collision, the Andrea Doria sank and was lost forever.  That has not deterred divers seeking mementos from the wreck, though the currents, depth and deterioration of the vessel make it a dangerous prospect.  Sixteen divers have lost their lives here.

The sister ship Cristoforo Colombo was scrapped in 1982 but the MS Stockholm, now renamed Astoria is still in service.  È proprio ingiusto!

Model of the SS Andrea Doria, with black triangle representing the hole made by the MS Stockholm’s impact


Cibo di Strada (Genoan sustenance!)

In the UK it’s often seen as a sign of someone’s lack of class if they are seen leaving a branch of Gregg’s the bakers munching into a freshly bought pasty straight out of its bag. It’s “chavvy” or common to do so in many people’s eyes, possibly because it is an impossible task to achieve with dignity.

In Genoa a similar act is commonplace, and seemingly not seen as common.

Wherever I go on my Italian travels I try to eat some of the local specialities like cicchetti in Venice, or tortelloni in Bologna.  In Genoa the obvious first choice is trofiette pasta with fresh pesto (so much more vibrant than the jars that sit in supermarkets), but you can hardly snack on that as you walk the Genovan strade.

Luckily there is another Ligurian speciality to fill the gap (and your stomach).  Focaccia.  Now to be fair, this is hardly exotic fare; it’s fairly ubiquitous outside of Italy; I even make it myself on occasion.  In Genoa however you can’t walk more than a few metres in any direction without encountering a focacceria, ensuring that the bread is always at its freshest.  It’s also topped with cheese, tomato, or olives, as well as combinations of these staples.  There is even black focaccia, made with charcoal flour to aid digestion.  I stuck with the traditional ingredients.

Yet neither focaccia nor trofiette al pesto formed the most memorable food experience of my trip.  Again there are plenty of supplier to choose from, but all my research suggested that the place to try farinata was from an old hole in the wall establishment called Antica Sciamadda.  (Sciamadda is a local dialect word meaning “flamed”).

I couldn’t wait to try this chickpea pancake, and so made it one of the fixed points of my first day’s itinerary.  As midday approached I headed down towards the port with my mouth watering.

It was closed.

To be fair it was Sunday.

The following day I was in the vicinity again, and as the day was much colder and wetter than before seeing the yellow light emerging from windows that had been firmly shuttered before was a life saver.  I rushed in and asked for farinata.

They had none… but luckily only because it wasn’t yet ready. I spent the time wisely and ordered a selection of the other deep-fried snacks that they make there and a slice of quiche (torta salata).  This might be street food, but I was glad of the shelter so grabbed one of the few stools at a counter inside which gave me the perfect chance to view the farinata being made.

A thin batter made from chickpea flour, olive oil and seasoning is poured into a huge flat pan which is then manoeuvred into a fierce oven in a compartment alongside the burning wood, so that the heat is conducted along the roof of the oven to cook the pancake.  The pan itself has no handles and so the baker(?) rotates it using long steel poles to ensure an even distribution of heat.  Such a thin flatbread cooks very quickly and the pan is soon withdrawn, but must cool a little before serving.

I was asked how many pieces I wanted.  Having no idea how large they would be I opted for two, which proved the right decision given what I had already consumed.  There was no carefully measured wedge however.  Using what appeared to be a wallpaper scraper the large disc was rapidly carved into smaller pieces and unceremoniously dumped onto a polystyrene plate for me.

No frills, no fuss, but no quibbles from me.  It was just what I needed, even if I didn’t eat it on the street.  I wasn’t the only one!

…and the one that got away.

Though not on the Strada Nuova, Genoa does have another spectacular public palace; the Palazzo Reale (the Royal Palace) which was built in the 17th century and acquired by the Italian Royal Family (the House of Savoy) early in the 20th.  The country is now a republic, but the family line continues.

The house is full of great artistry; frescoes, statuary and paintings, and I saw none of them as the Palace was closed for restoration works.

Scarlet Women…

Time to conclude my look at some of the Palazzi of Via Garibaldi (Strada Nuova) which means Palazzo Rosso, the Red Palace. 

Maria de Brignole-Sale, Duchess of Galliera

This again was owned by the Brignole-Sale family, though the matriarch in my last Italian post, and who is represented here, bequeathed the palace to the city in 1874 a few years before her death.  Built in the 17th century, this is the most sumptuous of the three, and features an array of artwork including some Brignole portraits by Van Dyck which must have accompanied them from one of the other palazzi that they owned.  Here you will also find Veronese, Dürer and more.  One of the rooms from her residential area in the palace is the header to this piece.

There was one painting that stopped me in my tracks however, for no other reason than that I thought I recognised it from a programme I’d seen looking into the provenance of UK artworks, yet here was the same image in Genoa.  The attendant in the gallery spoke no English so I was unable to confirm that the BBC had been here, and my subsequent online searches linking it to art historian Bendor Grosvenor proved fruitless, and yet I knew I was familiar with this work by Jan Wildens.  That bum hanging over the frozen water is unmistakable!Leaving the artworks to one side, this is a remarkable building.  Frescos, stucco, gilded statues, trompe l’oeil…  In bequeathing the building to the city the Duchess said she was leaving “artistic splendour”.  She might have added opulence.  Even the floors which were only recently discovered after the removal of worn out carpeting are spectacular.

There’s another woman who plays an important part in the history of the palazzo. Until her death in 1976, Caterina Marcenaro was one of Italy’s leading art historians, and she supervised the restoration of the Palazzo Rosso, removing many of the 18th and 19th century features to reveal the glorious baroque excesses below.  She moved into the building and commissioned rationalist architect Franco Albini to design an apartment for her in the loft space.  This open plan living space might have been considered stark and minimal, but the addition of a few items from the museum’s collection has transformed it.  The private staircase which Albini installed for her has become a major exhibit in itself.

Now if the title of this piece led you into expecting something salacious, perhaps I should tell the tale of another Brignole who lived here.  This is Via Garibaldi, a name that either means biscuits to you, or the Royal Family of Monaco.  Maria Caterina Brignole was no baker and was once referred to as “the most beautiful woman in France”.  Though she wed Prince Honoré III of Monaco, that relationship didn’t get off to a good start when on her arrival there he didn’t come to meet her, launching a stand-off where each party refused to go to the other due to their respective levels of nobility.  An affair with a French prince ensured (Louis Joseph Prince of Condé).  Following the French Revolution she escaped with Condé to London where they married in secret.  She died in Wimbledon.

But I digress.  Back to the Palazzo Rosso and that staircase…

Surprises in Store

“As soon as Cataldo Barbara sees the violin, he practically faints.  Then he plays it, and there can be no more doubt: it’s a Guarneri”

The Voice of the Violin – Andrea Camilleri

The great thing about visiting museums as eclectic as those on Genoa’s Strada Nuova is that you’re guaranteed some surprises. To gain access to the second of the trio you ascend to the third floor of Palazzo Bianco and emerge to find yourself still at street level thanks to the sloping geography of the city, though it’s not a street that you discover.  Another garden awaits, marking the site of a former monastery, and so the first items you encounter within the Palazzo Doria Tursi are fragments from that structure, though these pale into insignificance compared to the grandeur of the palace you’re now entering.

Palazzo Doria Tursi from roof of Palazzo Rosso


Though it would have been nice to have called this the Palazzo Verde to fit with the neighbours, the colour scheme is wrong and the owners of this building had a name to celebrate.  Though originally built in the mid 16th century for the Grimaldis, it was bought by the nephew of the great admiral Andrea Doria (who has appeared here before, and will again) for his son the Duke of Tursi.  Why hide behind a colour when you want to play upon your heritage?

So what treasures are worthy of display here?

Well once you get past the Canova masterpiece (appropriately of Maddalena) then you are treated to  numismatic collections, measuring canisters and pharmaceutical jars in volumes that would satisfy any enthusiast in those genres.

Unfortunately my fascination with such items has its limits but I was more than happy to enjoy the building itself, both for the architecture of its internal courtyard and loggia, and the decoration of the rooms

And so I ambled through the palace absorbed in the decoration of ceiling and doorways when one of the attendants stopped me and suggested I pass through a couple of rooms that I had thought closed to the public.  In the first it took me a while for my eyes to adjust to the light, but when they did, and I adjusted my camera similarly, I was rewarded by the walls, ceiling and flooring.  Understandable that they should wish to protect the room from the sun.  What might lie in the second room I wondered?

At first I was underwhelmed.  Keeping watch in the corner was a large seated statue of a woman not unlike Queen Victoria, a woman who will play a part in the story of the third palace of Strada Nuova,  but what gems was the sentinel keeping watch over?  Some sheet music, a few medals and awards.  A small sculpture.  And two violins.

Their significance might have eluded me were it not for the case that accompanied them.  Here was the greatest surprise.

To describe Niccolò Paganini as a virtuoso seems understated for a man who could be described as the originator of modern violin technique, and if you lived in the UK in the 70’s and 80’s you would have heard Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s take on his music as the theme to arts programme The South Bank Show each week before Melvyn Bragg’s nasal tones began the show.

You might expect the star of the show to be a Strad, but no.  This is a Guarneri, a violin whose tones were a match for those of Stradivarius, tones which caused Paganini to name this The Cannon.  It’s also a great deal more valuable than many Stradivari too.  It has a very special provenance.