GENOA IN THE RENAISSANCE
The Renaissance is an important event in European history that stretched from the 14th century to the 17th century. It was preceded by the Middle Ages in Europe and eventually led to other major events such as the Age of Enlightenment. In historical terms the Renaissance is important because it led to a major shift in European thought and worldview. The Renaissance is considered to have begun in the city-states of the Italian peninsula, such as: Genoa, Florence, Milan, Naples, Rome and Venice.
In each of these city-states, the significant changes of the overall Renaissance occurred and unfolded. For example, the most significant changes that emerged as a result of the Renaissance can be seen in European architecture, art, literature, mathematics, music, philosophy, politics, religion and science. Intellectual thought in these fields flourished during the timeframe of the Renaissance and led to many people questioning long held beliefs about each. This created an environment of discovery and curiosity in which new ideas were constantly being introduced and tested. As well, European life before the start of the Renaissance was dominated by feudalism and the Manor System, but these both played small roles for citizens in the powerful Italian city-states. As such, the major Italian city-states listed above were well positioned to undergo the societal shift brought about by the new Renaissance ideas.
Genoa (or Genova in Italian) is one of the most significant city-states from the Renaissance in Italy and developed along the coast of the northwestern section of the Italian peninsula next to the Ligurian Sea. The city of Genoa is located along the coast and positioned between the Ligurian Sea (which is part of the Mediterranean Sea) and the Apennine Mountains. Historians believe that people had been living in the region since the fifth or fourth century BCE but it became a much more significant area in the timeframe of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
In ancient times, the area around Genoa was supposedly inhabited by several different groups, including: Ligures, Etruscans and Greeks. It was an important region for these early peoples due to its useful harbor. As such, Genoa has been an important trading center for northern Europe and the rest of the Italian peninsula since the fifth century BCE. This is likely the reason for the city-state’s name (Genoa) which supposedly means ‘door’ or ‘passage’ in reference to its role as a trading center for northern Italian towns and the other trading ports of the Mediterranean Sea. With that said, others have interpreted the meaning of its name differently. For example, others have suggested that the name related to an ancient Roman god named Janus. The god was said to have two faces, which related to Genoa in that it also had two faces – one that faced the sea and one that faced the mountains.
Historically, Genoa emerged as an independent city-state around 1100 CE. Like other Italian city-states at the time, Genoa played an important role in the events of the crusades. The crusades were a series of religious wars carried out by Christian crusaders from Europe during the timeframe of the Middle Ages. Beginning in 1095 CE, the crusades saw European knights and noblemen travel to the Middle East in an attempt to capture the Holy Land away from Muslim people that had controlled the region for the previous centuries. The term crusade means ‘cross’. Therefore, the Europeans that became crusaders viewed themselves as ‘taking up the cross’. In fact, many of the crusaders wore crosses on their clothing and armor as they made their pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
Due to its geographic location and excellent harbor, Genoa was an important center for European crusaders. For instance, crusades from western Europe travelled to Genoa, where they sought transport by ship to the Holy Land. Because of its history as a trading center with ships from across the Mediterranean, Genoa offered the crusaders the ability to find transport. As such, Genoa benefited greatly from the crusades, since it improved their economy and standing among other European Christians. For example, he travelling crusaders spent money in Genoa which helped improve the local economy, but Genoa as a city-state also prospered because it gained access to other trading ports throughout the region. Genoa experienced a great deal of growth throughout this period. For instance, the navy of Genoa gained control over Constantinople in 1261 CE, which allowed Genoa access to different ports throughout the Black Sea. As a result, Genoa’s merchants began selling a variety of different goods to these new trading ports, including: wine, olive oil, and wool. For example, modern blue jeans owe their name to blue wool cloth created in Genoa. The cloth became popular among sailors at the time due to its durability, and has continued into modern time. The growth that Genoa experienced as a trading center in the 13th century, caused it to come into conflict with other powerful city-states of the time including Venice. Genoa and Venice became bitter rivals during the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance as each developed its own powerful navy and trade routes. For instance, this led to each competing for similar trading posts and for influence in the Mediterranean and surround area. The conflict with the two city-states eventually resulted in the Venetian-Genoese Wars which lasted from 1236 to 1381. However, this period of prosperity in Genoa was slowed by the events of the Black Death.
As with other cities in Europe at the time, the city-state of Genoa was impacted by the events of the Black Death. The plague spread from Asia into Europe in 1347 and had devastating impacts for all of the European continent. For instance, many historians have argued that the large death tolls of the Black Death led to major societal changes, such as: demise of the feudal system and political and economic changes. Cities with large populations were especially hit hard because people were living in much closer situations and the plague was able to spread more easily. This caused an economic and political collapse within Genoa.
Regardless, an important event in the history of Genoa was the signing of the Treaty of Turin in 1381. The treaty ended the War of Chioggia, which was part of the ongoing conflict between Genoa and its allies against Venice and its allies. In short, the treaty saw Venice as the victor over Genoa. In reality, Venice narrowly won the conflict and both city-states sought a peace to end the conflict and focus instead of commerce and trade. Some historians have viewed the concessions that Venice was forced to agree to in the Treaty of Turin as a sign of defeat. However, the peace that followed the Treaty of Turin benefitted Genoa and Venice as it allowed each to focus on expanding their wealth and influence. For instance, historians estimate that the population of Genoa increased to approximately 100,000 people by the year 1400.
Genoa’s importance and power as a Renaissance city-state returned in the 15th century. This is best evidenced by the rise of Genoa’s banks, including the famous Bank of Saint George (known as Banco San Giorgio in Italian). Founded in 1407, the Bank of Saint George was originally funded and established by some of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Genoa. As time passed, the Bank of Saint George became significant for helping fund Genoa’s debt which had increased dramatically due to its conflict with Venice in the earlier Venetian-Genoese Wars. Furthermore, other European nations and leaders borrowed heavily from the bank which allowed Genoa to grow in importance and wealth. For example, Christopher Columbus, the famous explorer, had an account at the bank and used the bank during his famous four voyages to the New World in the late 15th century. The Bank of Saint George eventually closed in 1805 following Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Italy.
In the beginning, Genoa operated as a self-governing commune within the larger Italian peninsula. Essentially, Medieval communes were communities in which towns and cities came to a mutual defense agreement. However, as time passed, Genoa developed into a republic, which was a common form of government throughout the influential Renaissance city-states of the Italian peninsula. Traditionally, a republic is a form of government in which the people of the state have a great deal more power and influence than they previously did under an absolute monarchy, which was the common form of government in Middle Ages Europe. In Genoa, the leader of the republic was referred to as the Doge. It was an elected position in which the person could serve as the leader for the remainder of their life, although this was changed later. The first Doge of Genoa began in 1339, as the system was modeled in part from the republic system from Genoa’s bitter rival - Venice. However, the position of the Doge was changed in 1528 when it was changed to only include a term of two years. This continued until the Republic of Genoa ended in 1797 with the annexation of the city-state to Napoleon Bonaparte of France.
An important aspect in the history of Genoa was the influence of Andrea Doria. Doria was a Genovese Admiral who oversaw Genoa’s allegiance to Spain and the Spanish Emperor Charles V in 1528. In the decades before, Genoa had been heavily influence by France. However, Andrea Doria, who was a military leader for the city-state of Genoa was unhappy with his standing in the France, led a movement to ally Genoa with the Spanish empire instead. This is important, because the great banks of Genoa (including Bank of Saint George) played an important role in the history of Spain. For instance, they funded Charles V and his endeavors in the New World, including expeditions of famous explorers during the Age of Exploration.
Many significant people emerge from the city-state of Genoa in the timeframe of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. One such significant individual was the famous explorer Christopher Columbus. He was born in 1451 in Genoa, although he didn’t stay in the city-state long and became famous elsewhere. He is famous for his travels to the New World, especially his first journey in 1492 that arguably began the massive migration of Europeans to the Americas during the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s emergence from Genoa is important because it shows the significance of sailing and sailors in the city-state at the time.