Postcard from Genoa, Italy: Vestiges from our visit

Although he sailed for the New World under the Spanish flag, Genoa claims Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) as among the famous born there.

Genoa’s narrow, rabbit warren-like tangle of streets and intimate plazas in the historic medieval center, purportedly the largest intact in Europe, mainly defy access to anything as wide as a modern-day automobile. Centuries-old buildings reflect layers of changing architectural tastes in their facades. Ethnic shops crowd into small spaces in the heart of the city, while contemporary fashion is found on arcaded boulevards outside the walls. Elegant palaces and financial houses from Renaissance and Baroque periods line streets and the wide-open Piazza de Ferrari just outside the medieval walls.

Genoa is a rough-and-tumble jumble, a beautiful unpolished diamond inviting those living in the New World to explore the Old. Well, inviting except by that one grouchy tagger who dropped the f-bomb on tourists.

Postcard from Genoa, Italy: Captain’s castle reflects his circumnavigations of the globe

Service in the Italian Navy and Merchant Navy did not diminish the love Captain Enrico Alberto d’Albertis (1846-1932) had for the sea. He circled the globe three times using diverse forms of transportation, explored Africa and even recreated the journey of Christopher Columbus to San Salvador relying on 15th-century-style navigational instruments he crafted himself. Known also as a writer, philologist and ethnologist, he collected enthusiastically during his travels.

The adventurer’s eclectic collection needed a home reflecting its quirkiness, so the captain helped design a Neo-Gothic Revival castle with major Moorish and other exotic embellishments. Perched atop a hill overlooking Genoa’s harbor, the castle was built between 1886 and1892 in the midst of medieval fortifications and incorporates one of the turrets from the 16th-century bastion.

Captain d’Albertis left his castle and collection to the city of Genoa where it serves as the city’s Museum of World Cultures. Many of the items and furnishings are arranged exactly as when the captain was alive.

The explorer was as colorful as the items he chose to collect. Elisabetta Genecchi-Ruscone delved into his journals to document some of his travels in the Journal de la Societe des Oceanistes:

D’Albertis really seemed to enjoy the thrill of trading for artefacts with natives approaching the ship on their canoes. In Battulei, in the Aru Islands, he reported trading for bracelets and skulls, but it was especially in Orangerie Bay that he did most of his ethnographic collection on this trip. He acquired spears, stone clubs, bamboo combs, cassowary ornaments, and bracelets made out of human mandibles. To the north of Dafure Island D’Albertis reported having nearly succeeded in bartering a piece of iron for a ten-year old boy. The arrival of the boy’s mother thwarted his efforts and instead he obtained a grass skirt.

And from the captain’s diary upon leaving the coast of New Guinea in 1880:

A last greeting to these children of Nature, a farewell, perhaps forever. Chance brought us to know them; we approached them, we may say, for a minute, yet this sufficed to breed in us a sympathy for this people who we call barbarous and savage because they live a life so different from ours. If we knew more intimately their customs we may have reason to be persuaded that they are better than is generally thought….

They had in them something noble, and did not lower themselves to asking or showing desire for what I showed them. No, these personages are something more than savages, they are in the European sense true gentlemen.

Not known for being shy, the flamboyant traveler did sometimes take advantage of the naïve:

To show that I intended being friends with Aira and his people, I hugged and kissed him, in the middle of the village square, then, among general laughter, I went on to kiss all the women: The scene was certainly among the most comical, some shyer women would have refused my embrace, but were incited by the others to let me do. It is true that to be impartial and give my act the true aspect of a ceremony I had to kiss some old and ugly ones, but on the whole there were more young and beautiful ones, and some really were beautiful.

One of the most interesting parts of a visit to the castle is to leaf through albums containing a small portion of the 20,000 photographs taken by the captain at home in Genoa and around the world. To explore images from his amazing journeys, click here.

Postcard from Rome, Italy: When hell freezes over, build a church

On summering in Rome:

…even dawn is hot…. The city is drugged with heat; the stones are dead; the streets are devastatingly quiet. From one until four, no one moves. Shutters are drawn, storefronts sealed – it might as well be 3 a.m.

Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

Now it’s springtime. The weather in Rome this month approaches perfection. But memories of visiting here in the summertime more than 40 years ago still sizzle in my memory.

So, if, in the midst of a sultry night, the Virgin Mary appeared to you in a dream to announce you should build a church when and where it snowed? Well, duh.

Legend has it that Pope Liberius (310-366) had what would have seemed a pipe dream, except…. One August the 5th, it snowed on Esquiline Hill. Definitely a hard-to-ignore sign to erect what would eventually evolve into the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Through the centuries, the church continued to benefit from papal enhancements. Mosaics along the central nave were added by Pope Sixtus III (390-440), while the mosaics depicting the “Coronation of the Virgin” over the apse by a Franciscan friar, Jacopo Torriti, were commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV (1227-1292), depicted on the far left of the grouping. The geometric Cosmatesque flooring was added during the same period. Lorenzo Cosmati (1140‑1210) is credited with this marquetry technique of slicing thin layers of colored stone salvaged from “leftovers” of Roman antiquity.

Pope Gregory XI (1329-1378) added the 246-foot high bell tower, the tallest in Rome, soon after his return from Avignon. King Ferdinand II (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella (1451-1504) contributed gold from the journeys of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) to the New World for the coffered ceiling dating from 1450.

Pope Sixtus V (1521-1590) commissioned architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1606) to design the Sistine Chapel. Fontana achieved acclaim for his engineering feats erecting some of the city’s massive obelisks imported from Egypt, including the one in front of Santa Maria Maggiore. The 327-ton one in front of Saint Peter’s required 900 men and 75 horses to haul and install into its upright position.

A little spirited papal competition led Pope Paul V (1552-1621) to try to outdo that chapel by enlisting architect Flaminio Ponzio (1560-1618) to design Cappella Paolina. Paul V was of the Borghese clan, and Ponzio also designed the Villa Borghese Pinciana, home to one of Rome’s most prominent museums. And then there is a chapel designed by Michelangelo (1475-1564) but completed by another architect.

In the heat of a summer afternoon, churches are the only refuges, dim and cool…. I want to stay in these churches for hours; I want to take off my shirt and lie on the marble, my chest against the stone, and let the perpetual dusk drift over me.

Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome

An August snow is like a never-occurrence in Rome, but, every year on the fifth, in commemoration of the miraculous time it did, showers of thousands of snow-white flower petals flutter down from the gilded ceiling upon the congregation.