Christopher Columbus and Genoa
Every Day is Columbus Day in Liguria

The monument to Christopher Columbus in Santa Margherita Ligure

by David Downie

Happy Columbus Day!

Since the die is cast and the damage is done, we’ll skip the parts about nasty white disease-ridden Europeans invading the virgin parts of the world. And we’ll concentrate on the plus side of October 12th and what it means to at least a handful of people worldwide who look at history as a fascinating riddle, an endless tale, without judging it.

Columbus’s journey was a feat of navigation, a demonstration not only of foolhardy confidence – the intrepid sea captain was sailing in the wrong direction, after all, if he hoped to reach India – but also of fearless entrepreneurialism. The goal was to find a short, safe passage toward riches.

That plucky if misguided spirit pretty much abandoned Columbus’s home town of Genoa many centuries ago. Genoa is one of Italy’s great cities: scenic, historic, the heartland of delicious Ligurian specialties such as pesto, focaccia and farinata. But a crucible of entrepreneurialism it is not, not any more. It now thrives off shipping, finance, high tech and tourism.

Rewind to the warlike days of Columbus however, and the story is different. Genoa was the most aggressive, most belligerent, richest, most powerful maritime city state on the Mediterranean, a worthy rival of Venice, with trading outposts and the world’s first banks scattered far and wide. It was a fierce republic that called itself La Superba—the proud, the haughty.

The Genoese then as now were risk-adverse however, preferring to let hot-blooded youths make their fortunes at their own risk and peril—with the hope that those fortunes would one day come home. They often did. The Genoese distinguished themselves as crusaders, explorers, mercenaries and above all traders and money lenders.

In the case of Columbus, he sailed the ocean-blue in 1492 but not for the cautious, canny Genoese. The story of Christopher and the Spanish, and their subsequent conquest of the Americas, is too well known to repeat here. Patient, the skeptical, clear-eyed Genoese watched Columbus sail away, waited, and before too many decades had passed, the “New World’s” gold, silver, spices and much else came their way. The Genoese may not have invented banking and finance, but they brought them to a high art very early on.

While there are dozens of monuments to Columbus in Genoa and on the Italian Riviera (like the one shown, in Santa Margherita Ligure), there are none to my knowledge to the early bankers and gurus of credit, letters of finance and the many instruments that make the financial world go round to this day (when it’s not going haywire). Most such instruments were pioneered in Genoa.

On a purely personal level, Columbus Day always meant a great deal to me when I was growing up in San Francisco. We watched or took part in the parade, and were proud to be of Italian origin—on my mother’s side, that is. She married my father, an American GI, in Rome, on Columbus Day, 1946. Some years later my parents sailed together for America from Genoa, the city of Columbus. So while no one should harbor illusions about the downside of the “discovery” he made, some of us can also take the long view and be philosophical. One major consolation: the world now knows and enjoys Genoese food… ravioli, pesto, chickpea-farinata, focaccia and more.

For more on Columbus, the history of Genoa and its maritime republic, the culture, food, wine, hikes, treks, restaurants, food shops, best focaccia, best Italian Riviera discoveries and more, pick up our books, Food Wine Italian Riviera & Genoa and Enchanted Liguria: A Celebration of the Culture, Lifestyle and Food of the Italian Riviera.

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Christopher Columbus and Genoa originally appeared on Oct 12, 2011, © David Downie

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