Founded in the 4th century BC, Genoa’s name is thought to come from the Latin ianua, meaning ‘door’. An important Roman port, it was later occupied by Franks, Saracens and the Milanese. The first ring of Genoa’s defensive walls was constructed in the 12th century (the only remaining section of these walls, Porta Soprana, was built in 1155, although what you see today is a restored version).
A victory over Venice in 1298 led to a period of growth, but bickering between the Grimaldis, Dorias, Spinolas and other dynasties caused internal chaos. The Grimaldis headed west, establishing the principality of Monaco (hence the similarity of Monaco’s language, Monegasque, to the Genoese dialect).
In the 16th century, under the rule of Imperial Admiral Andrea Doria, Genoa benefited from financing Spanish exploration. Its coffers swelled further in the 17th century, which saw an outer ring of walls added as the city expanded, and its newly built palaces filled with art, in turn attracting masters such as Rubens. Celebrated architect Galeazzo Alessi (1512–72) designed many of the city’s splendid buildings.
The end of the Age of Exploration came as a blow and as the Mediterranean’s mercantile importance declined, so did Genoa’s. The city languished for centuries.
Genoa was the first northern city to rise against Nazi occupation and the Italian Fascists during WWII, liberating itself before the arrival of Allied troops. After the war the city developed rapidly along the coast, although, by the 1970s, decline had set in once more as big industries folded.
Christopher Columbus is Genoa’s most famous son (if indeed he was). In 1992 the 500th anniversary of his seminal voyage to America transformed Genoa’s ancient harbour from a decaying backwater into a showpiece for the city. Renzo Piano orchestrated the overhaul, adding a number of striking permanent attractions. Two years later, Genoa was named a European City of Culture, spurring on further renovations and additions to the cityscape, including several new museums and a much-needed metro system. But for all its sprucing up, Genoa retains a rough-and-tumble charm.