Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Brief History of Genoa

The Most Serene Republic of Venice dominated commerce in the Mediterranean for centuries leading to its ascendancy as a great power. But as Venice stood mighty in the Aegean Sea, another posed as its rival in the other side of the Italian Peninsula. In the Lingurian Sea, Genoa rivaled Venice and shared its tradition as a commercial maritime power and a republican city-state.

Early History

Before it turned into a great Mediterranean power, Genoa traced its roots to the ancient Ligurian people that settled in the shores of a semi-circular harbor isolated by mountains. The area lack the fertile lands as it shied away from the rich Po River valley. Its waters failed to sustain large schools of fish to feed the population. Nonetheless, the people stayed even up to the time of the time of Romans.

Ancient geographer Strabo made the early mention of the settlement – Genua – “the emporium of Ligures.” “Emporium” suggested that the Ligures found a livelihood in form of trade. The city continued to thrive as Rome constructed its massive road network connecting the vast empire. Genoa connected with the rest of Italy through the Roman roads Via Aurelia, Via Postumia, and Via Julia Augusta.

After the Rome

After the fall of Rome, the city became part of the Ostroghic kingdoms that ruled Northern Italy. Then, in the 6th century, the Eastern Roman Empire, the Byzantines, conquered the former lands of the Western Roman Empire and in 537, Genoans became part of the extensive Empire. Their integration to the Empire allowed Genoans to connect with the Byzantine capital of Constantinople, establishing a link which will be to Genoa’s advantage later one.

By the 7th century, however, Byzantine influence and power retreated and the Muslims advanced throughout the Mediterranean Sea. From Spain to Sicily and Southern Italy, Muslim rule reigned supreme and Muslim Saracen Pirates roamed the coast of Italy. In 934 or 935, Muslim Fatimids laid waste to Genoa, plundering the city and leaving it in ruins. Genoa’s scanty history after the sacking suggested that the city might have been abandoned for some time.

Genoa did not emerged once again as a prominent city until the 11th century. The city came back from from its destruction and in 1016 teamed up with Pisa to expel the Muslims in Sardinia giving security of navigation in the Lingurian Sea.


When Genoa joined with Pisa to crush the Muslims, the city had realized its potential as a naval power. Although the city lacked the fertile lands to produce its own grain, it did have the timber to build ships. Galleys with its large number of rows and capable of hauling large amounts of lightweight products formed the Genoese shipping and naval fleet. Soon enough, Genoese galleys played a key role in Europe’s Crusades.
Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont
calling for the First Crusade

In 1097, the whole of Europe hyped with the Pope’s call for a Crusade to retake the Holy Land from the hands of the Muslims. Genoa helped the Crusaders by providing ships to transport soldiers and supplies to the Levant. This gave Genoese the opportunity to establish enclaves in the Middle East and access to the exotic goods passing through the lucrative Silk Road.

Economic Development

Genoa thrived as a commercial city by using its galleys. Although their land only lacked the capacity to produce enough grain for the city, it did produced grapes and olives which the city processed into wine and oil that they traded with other cities for grain, cloth, gold, salt, and other commodities. With the development of new navigational technologies such as astrolabes, the creation of the portolano (a sailing manual) and the triangular Latin sails, Genoese ships managed to travel further and the Crusades gave the opportunity to expand Genoese economic interest.


Like Venice, trade was key industry for Genoa. Basically, Genoese merchants bought goods from one port and sold it to another port that offered profitable prices. With the dawn of the Crusades, Genoese gained access to new markets. They gained access to the Black Sea and its famous alum, a key ingredient in producing best quality dyes. They also gained access to the Levant and the Silk Trade Routes that gave spices, silk, gold and frankincense to sell. They as well stepped into Egypt which soon became Genoa’s largest trading partner as it sold grain, salt, gold, and others.

The slave trade in the Mediterranean also provided additional profits to Genoese. They sold mostly Muslim captives as slaves to many ports, especially Constantinople.

By the 12th century, Genoa turned into a commercial power, having access to the Middle East and the Black Sea and serving as an entrepot for goods flowing to Lombardy and Southern France. Genoese trade fairs occurred in the different parts of the region.

Genoese trade, however, did not limited itself within the Pillars of Hercules. They advanced their trade interest northward and into the ports of Northern Europe, such as Bruges, by the 1270’s. This gave them access to English wool, vital to the flourishing textile industry of the Italian Peninsula.

With a commercial tradition, the Genoese managed to develop their transactions into sophisticated investment contracts to finance trade activities. With ships being at sea for months and even years, and with voyages in treacherous seas and unforeseen hazardous weathers, a trade voyage might ran a risk of being either profitable or a huge loss. Thus, financing a trader equaled as a speculative investment. Three types of commercial contracts appeared to have dominated Genoa: the commenda, societas, and the sea loan.

Women’s Rights                                                            

Women joined the workforce, while most men went overseas. They took care of homes and workshops. They helped in the shipbuilding industry by making sails, ropes, and biscuits for sailors. They processed textile which Genoese traders sold to foreign markets. With their vital participation in the economy of the city, they earned some basic rights, such as property ownership and participation in commercial contracts and transactions.

Rise of a Republican Government

Like Venice, Genoa took up a republican style government which started in form of a commune and developed to a dogeship. However, unlike its powerful rival in the Adriatic Sea, Genoa’s republic constantly marred by chaos and division. As its economy and commercial empire flourished, Genoa’s politics dragged the city down.

Early Genoa Commune

As the city progress well into the Medieval Age, the remoteness of Genoa by land developed Genoese self-governance. In 1099 a caffaro or a commune emerged to rule the city-state. The Commune comprised of nobles and wealth merchants. The body then elected 6 consuls annually and gave them the power to preside over the foreign affairs of the city, mainly to achieve the expansion of the city’s trade network, the collection of taxes, and finally the enforcement of law. The government of Genoa also employed judges and arbiters in charge of resolving commercial disputes.

While the city prospered, the lands that Genoa Commune controlled in Italy also expanded. By early 12th century, Genoa comprised the lands from San Remo to Porto Venere. The city also saw favor from the Papacy when it became an Archbishopric in 1133.

Division of Genoese Society

While Venice managed to keep social divide erupting into a destructive force for their Republic, Genoa, on the other, lived with it and even became its undoing. Division erupted between nobles, affluent families such as the Grimaldis, Spinola, and Doria, and wealthy merchants and the popolo or smaller merchants and craftsmen. Genoese society further divided as the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope vied for influence and Italian states choose sides.

Frederick Barbarossa (Center)
in Historia Welforum
In 1154, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa marched down to Italy with an army to reinstate his authority over the region and challenge the Pope’s power. Genoa along with other Italian states formed the Lombard League to resist the Emperor’s advance. War between the Emperor and the League lasted for almost a decades. In 1161, the Emperor destroyed Milan and Genoa negotiated for peace. In this negotiations, Genoa gained a charter that virtually made the city independent of the Holy Roman Empire, but in exchange, they must fight with the Emperor. However, the complexity of Italian politics shifted quickly. By the 1170’s, Genoa once again fought against Barbarossa with the Lombard League and in 1176 struck a brilliant victory against the emperor in the Battle of Legano. Years after the battle, Barbarossa gave up his plans for Italy in the Peace of Constance in 1183, he guaranteed the independence of many Italian states, including Genoa.

Barbarossa’s invasion, however, had a lasting impact in Genoa and the whole of Italy’s history. The competition between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope for authority over Italy and clergy created 2 factions: the Guelphs (supporters of the Pope) and the Ghibellines (supporters of the Emperor). This division had serious effects in the city’s politics and society.

With the war erupting in the region, some nobles moved into the cities. The increase in number of nobles led to social tensions with the merchants. To stabilize the situation, the Commune was abolished in 1190 and replaced by the leadership of a podesta, a city administrator, usually a foreign knight, with the powers over the army and impartial to any social class. But it did not last long.

The domination of nobles led the popolo or the lower class merchants, craftsman, and artisans to revolt and brought to power a Captain of the People – Guglielmo Boccanegra. Boccanegra united the Genoa by taking it to war against its Adriatic rival Venice. This came as a result of competition over influence in Eastern Mediterranean. Boccanegra fostered an alliance with Michael Palaeologus who wanted to restore the Byzantine Empire and they signed in 1261 the Treaty of Nymphaeum, a defense and commercial agreement that gave Genoese merchants concessions in the Black Sea and tax exemptions.

Boccanegra also reformed the city’s finances. He restructured public debts by consolidating it and made the creditors into its stock holders, who received 8% interest for every 2 months. He also tax consumption, but reduced tolls in hope of encouraging further trade.

Although the Boccanegra strove for the improvement of Genoa, nobles deposed him in 1262 and re-instituted the administration of Podesta. For over the next century, Genoa continued to be plagued by political infighting and coups. The infighting led to the poor performance of Genoa in the 1262 – 1267 war with Pisa.

In 1270, one of the most notable was the coup of the Ghibellines Oberto Spinola and Oberto Doria who also exacted the support of the Popolo and became Captains of the People. As Ghibellines they opposed the Guelf supporter Frankish King Charles of Anjou from expanding his dominion to Southern Italy, in particular Naples.

A decade later, they led Genoa to a war against Pisa in 1282 and Oberto Doria led the Genoese navy successfully in the battle of Meloria. After the battle, the 2 Oberto Captains retired from government leaving their sons to rule Genoa. In 1298, Lamba Doria, a son of Oberto Doria fought this time the Venetians and won the Battle of Curzola. The battle combined with its expansive network of enclaves and colonies across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea marked the pinnacle of Genoese power.

Decline of Genoa

Genoa’s decline came in the 14th century. Political infighting, foreign intervention, debt, and the Plague brought the jewel of the Lingurian Sea down.

The rule of the Captains of the People eventually fell to the nobility during the dawn of the 1300’s. Instability continued until 1311 when the Genoese decided to choose peace under the rule of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VII. But in 1313, the Emperor died and Genoa returned to infighting until they chose once again foreign rule in form of King Robert of Naples in 1318. Robert of Naples, due to distance, failed to rule the city-state directly. As a result, nobles continued to squabble until Robert felt sick and resigned in 1335 and 2 Captains of the People once again emerged to rule the city.

The internal strife between nobles and popolos and Guelfs and Ghibellines damaged the economy. In 1335, tired of the situation, all factions decided to rest and divide offices among themselves equally. But this did not last long.

Depiction of Simone Boccanegra
in Verdi's Play Simone Boccanegra, 1881
In 1339, the popolo rose up once again. This time they established the Most Serene Republic of Genoa and elected a Doge, Simon Boccanegra, nephew of Guglielmo Boccanegra. The Doge style of government was modelled after Venice’s in hope of copying the city state’s stable government. This, however, failed in the end when in 1344, the nobles revolted and toppled down the government of the Doge.

Succession of revolts followed that strained Genoa. In 1356, Boccanegra returned to power. But later on overthrown and successive governments held power for a short time before being removed again. This went for the next 2 centuries.

But the clear blow to Genoa came in 1348. As a trade center and highly densely populated city, the outbreak of the Black Plague in Europe in 1348 brought devastating result to the city. The population of 100,000 dropped to around only 40,000. The huge loss in population caused serious drain in Genoa’s economy and military.

Besides the population loss, Genoa also faced huge debt problems. Even before the plague, Genoa struggled to pay its huge debts brought by wars and infighting. The government failed to capitalize on the trade industry due to the private nature of the venture. Worst, the tax burden was carried by the popolo and not the wealthy nobles and large mercantile families. In 1408, Genoa decided to restructure its debts amounting to 3 million lires and managed by a newly reorganized institution called Casa di San Giorgio or Banco di San Giorgio. The institution served as a public debt fund where its creditors became shareholders receiving 7% interest from their capital or previously principal.

Later on the Casa di San Giorgio became Genoa’s premier financial institution. Even Machiavelli praised it in his work History of Florence. It served as the state bank and collector of taxes. In 1408 it established a bank but later became defunct in 1444 due to bad loans and low capitalization. In 1437, it became a mint and regulated the Genoa’s currency.
Nevertheless, Casa di San Giorgio failed to solve the rising debt and interest payments. By 1509, the amount of Genoa’s debts work around 20 million lires.

Worst for Genoa, the debts continued to rise due to massive spending in the military. Wars with Venice caused huge amounts of wartime debt. Things went sour when the military failed to win victories and in 1380, suffered a serious military defeat in the Battle of Chioggia. Following wars with Venice, rebellion in the nearby Genoese Corsica took much of the government’s attention too.

The 15th and 16th century saw a turbulent Italy as France, Spain, and Milan competed for influence and territory in Northern Italy and Genoa fell victim to this. With constant warfare, Genoa became stagnant. Much of its professionals chose to leave and serve other European royalties. The same went for the Genoese Christopher Colombus who saw service under the patronage of Queen Isabella of Spain.

In 1528, Andrea Doria, a famous admiral, became the captain of the people. He led Genoa to become a client state of Spain. While Spain took gold and silver from her colonies, Genoa managed it. Genoa became a banking center. For a while, it enjoyed prosperity so long as Spain did. But once Spain also slipped back into stagnation brought by lavish spending in opulent palaces and expensive wars, Genoa too descended into a status of minor state.

Only in 1797 it emerged once again in history as one of the states Napoleon conquered, and along with Venice and the Holy Roman Empire finally extinguished from history.

Summing Up

Genoa was a predecessor of modern city states of Hong Kong and Singapore. Like Venice, even with small land territory it initially held, the Genoese showed resourcefulness and compensated the lack of fertile lands with entrepreneurial skills. They developed a prosperous shipping industry that spanned across the Mediterranean world and placed Genoa on the map. As its economy made the city a bright star, its politics became its undoing. Factionalism and oligarchy brought Genoa into stagnation and decline. The ruling elite concerned themselves with destroying each other rather than building Genoa up. Division led to foreign conquest and huge financial debts that overshadowed any gains in trade. Eventually, Genoa became a sick man of Europe until Napoleon finally abolished the state and established the Lingurian Republic. 

See also:

Baldoli, Claudia. A History of Italy. New York, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.


Epstein, Steven & George Gorse. "Genoa." In Medieval Italy: An Encyclopedia. Edited by Christopher Kleinhenz. New York, New York: Routledge, 2004.

Epstein, Steven. "Genoa." In Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History. Edited by Mokyr, Joel. New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Genoa." In Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed on November 11, 2017. URL: 

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