Tag Archives: Genoa

Two Original Manuscripts on Early-Modern Genoese History by, and a Short Biography of, the local historian Severino D. Dolente (1909–1993)

Severino was born in Genoa on 12th April 1909. He was raised by his paternal grandparents until he was ten years old, his father Giuseppe working outside the home and his mother Maria having emigrated to Argentina, whence she eventually returned in order to marry Severino’s father. Severino had a younger sister, four years his junior, and a younger brother, seven years so, who died of pneumonia at five years of age. Severino was shocked by this loss, which wounded him deeply. Nevertheless, he had quite a reputation as a lively boy, while his sister grew up quiet and introverted.

Since childhood, Severino displayed considerable intellectual gifts, and he was known as keenly and uncommonly curious about the details of all matters. Despite his poor family background and thoroughly working-class milieu, Severino completed a full cycle of secondary-school studies at the professional institute “Galileo Galilei” in Genoa and qualified as an industrial mechanic. This was far from common in Italy back in those days. At seventeen years of age, he got formally engaged to Caterina Canepa, also born in 1909, whom Severino had met in the local Catholic youth association, to which they both belonged. As Severino liked to recall, Caterina, who worked in her uncles’ fruit and vegetable shop, had signalled her interest by giving him regularly far more fruit than he paid for. For his part, Severino would write her daily letters and poems, in a display of his romantic personality and culture. Caterina, far more modestly, would stick to those local events that she deemed worthy of mention. As apt and proper for a young woman at that time, and in line with her reserved character, Caterina was far less expansive and far less open about her own feelings than Severino. After qualifying as an industrial mechanic, Severino fulfilled his compulsory duties in the Italian army, lasting two full years. At twenty-three, Severino, having passed an admission test, was hired as a clerk at the municipal offices of the City of Genoa. Then, Caterina and Severino got married the same year. They had a daughter in 1935, Marisa (née Maria Luisa), and another two years later, Rosa (known as Rosetta).

In 1940, Mussolini’s Italy having joined into the fray of the ongoing world conflagration, Severino was conscripted into the nation’s army. Despite living in a convenient location in Genoa with Severino’s own parents, he deemed it wiser to relocate his family by his in-laws’ countryside home. Severino fought in Albania and in Yugoslavia, where his chief duties consisted in driving lorries for the Italian Army, carrying ammunitions and supplies. Following Italy’s unilateral armistice in 1943, he was deported to Germany, where he spent about two years in a labour camp, together with Italian and Soviet prisoners, suffering deprivation and hunger. Upon the cessation of hostilities in 1945, he walked back to Genoa from Wurzburg, hitching the occasional ride along the way. Upon his return, Caterina underwent a major surgery for a tumour, which did not prove fatal. In 1946, a third daughter was born, Francesca, whose presence helped Severino to recover from the scars of wartime and from the traumas of prolonged imprisonment, which had brought about a nervous breakdown and an unhealthy fondness for the bottle.

Severino went back to his old job for the City of Genoa, he and his family still living in the countryside. In 1951, the whole family moved once again into the city. He had many hobbies, which included painting, mechanical invention and bocce. Above all, first as a clerk and then as a municipal policeman, Severino had ample opportunity to cultivate one of his many interests, namely local history. Having easy access to the municipal libraries and to the archives of the defunct Republic of Genoa, he gathered information on the most influential families of 15th-century Genoa and on the most famous Genoese man of that time, i.e., Christopher Columbus. In particular, Severino, anticipating later academic historians, highlighted the connections between Columbus’ famed voyages “to the East by way of the West” and the aims of the Genoese Pope Innocent VIII, born Giambattista Cibo.  Also, he sought out interesting specimens of local oral history.

Severino’s forays into early-modern Genoese history were much more than a mere pastime. Significantly, in 1950, Vittorio Pertusio, Mayor City of Genoa, assigned Severino as a formal collaborator to a pre-eminent Ligurian Columbus scholar, Dr. Antonio Castelli, in view of the celebrations that were to be held in honour of the great—and, of late, even controversial—Genoese explorer, who, among other things, is believed to have visited Iceland in 1477, choosing the farmstead at Inghjaldshóll as his place of residence like many other seafarers of that age setting sail from England (on that occasion, Columbus was sailing from the port of Bristol). Severino continued his researches on his retirement, leaving behind only two known well-drafted manuscripts, which are now being published in Nordicum-Mediterraneum for the first time. They are:

01 Francesco di Rivarolo

(On the role and relevance of the little-known Genoese galley-builder Francesco Oberti from Rivarolo in determining Christopher Columbus’ birthplace.)

02 La Strega

(On the origins of a legendary “witch” around the year 1492, as recounted by the Genoese dock workers in 1950. The last sentence on page 4 of the text ends with the words: “da dissesti finanziari.”)

Severino died in 1993, following a surgical intervention.


Nicholas Walton, Genoa “La Superba”. The rise and fall of a merchant pirate superpower (London: Hurst and Company, London, 2015)

Genoa is just a name for a place; the Genoese are an interesting people. Liguria is arguably the most isolated region of Italy, along with Sicily and Sardinia. The Genoese tend to go their own way in their view, ahead of their fellow Italians, to whom this simply confirms the reputation of the Genoese for being an arrogant and aloof people. […] Genoa led in the rise of capitalism, slavery, and colonization in the Middle Ages, international public finance in the sixteenth century, poor relief in the seventeenth century, republicanism in the nineteenth century. […] Genoa marched to the proverbial beat of its own drummer.

These quotations, taken from the Preface of another book about Genoa, can easily represent all the topoi of Genoese history that can also be found in this short introduction to the Ligurian capital. Genoa “La Superba” is an enjoyable mix of history, analysis, anecdotes and portraits of some Genoese historical figures (Andrea Doria, Giuseppe Mazzini, Giuseppe Garibaldi). This is not (only) a tourist guide and clearly not an academic book. In less than 220 pages, Nicholas Walton provides a vivid portrait and an accurate short biography of a City – forgive me the oxymoron – well-known for being unknown. Or – if not unknown – at least underrated.

Genoa and his historical relevance seem to have gone unnoticed largely because of the pride (some would say arrogance) of its inhabitants. It may seem paradoxical, but it is probably true. Locked between a harsh orography and a deep sea, Genoa managed to rise from obscurity to one of the richest and most powerful European city-states. Devoted mainly to financial and commercial interests, the Genoese played a key role in European history until the 18th century. However, during this time, Genoa remained largely a Republic of families, based on clans and tribal relations, and on the primacy of the private over the public: a peculiar political body whose key institution was the powerful Bank of Saint George, a unique financial organization which combined government function and the running of a public bank. Perhaps because of this mix of pragmatism, economic soft power, near-Calvinist austerity and a characteristic egocentric pride, Genoa remained for centuries in the shadow of the other historical Italian cities, such as Rome, Florence and its secular nemesis, Venice. Today, even if its role has been recognized by historians, Genoa remains largely underrated by the broader public.

Genoa “La Superba” can be particularly appealing to those interested in discovering Genoa and its history, since it provides a useful and quick guide for beginners. The book spans ten centuries, from the rise of the Genoese thalassocracy, during the First Crusade, to the present days, including the financial golden age in the 16th century and the industrial era between the 19th and the 20th century. As Roberto Sabatino Lopez once said, a city is, first of all, a state of mind. In this sense, some excursus to “ethnological” aspects (such as a chapter devoted to the pesto sauce, a symbol of cultural identity, or another devoted to the Genoese attitude towards football) can be a useful way for introducing the reader to the “spirit” of the city. In the same way, some apparent oversimplifications (such as the definition of Andrea Doria as “the Steve Jobs of the Mediterranean”) can be considered as useful analogies for exemplifying – for a broader public – a much more complex historical reality.

Nicholas Walton sketches the history of a “merchant pirate superpower” with a brilliant, humorous and sympathetic style. Indeed, due perhaps to his familiar ties with Genoa, Walton shows throughout the pages of this book some display of Genoese pride, such as in the pages dedicated – not surprisingly – to the Museo navale of Venice, full of scale models from the golden age of transatlantic shipping:

Again and again, the ships catch the eye with their elegance and that special aesthetic only generated by mechanical and industrial ingenuity. The Conte di Savoia is there, as is the Cristoforo Colombo – the sister ships of the Rex and the Andrea Doria respectively. Other names are just as evocative, like the Virgilio and the Michelangelo. It was an era when Italy began to take on the industrialised giants of the Western world, and do it in style. But again and again, the ships displayed in the museum in that great Adriatic city carry the name of its Tyrrhenian rival across their sterns: GENOVA.


Nükhet Varlik, Plague and Empire in the Early Modern Mediterranean World. The Ottoman Experience, 1347-1600 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015)

For the best part of the twentieth century, descriptions of the Black Death, 1346-1353, were a recurrent theme in almost all serious works on the general history of Europe and most European countries.

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A personal memoir by Þóra Arnórsdóttir

My choice wasn’t very exotic, though. I had decided to go to Norway for the next two semesters. However, as I sat there in the tiny little loft apartment I rented downtown, I suddenly realized that winters in Oslo are oh, so much colder than Reykjavik. I knew that the philosophy department of the University of Iceland had a good relationship with an Italian university and it was on this moment I decided that Genova would be my destination, not Oslo.

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