Representatives of European diversity

This year, Genoa is a European capital of culture. The European Union established the programme in 1985 in order to highlight European diversity. It started with cities symbolic of European culture such as Athens, Florence and Paris, but the title and the money soon became a way of boosting damaged or industrially declining cities. Past editions have featured Glasgow, Rotterdam, Thessaloniki and Weimar. The initiative was due to finish this year, but it was so popular that a new 15-year series will start in Cork in 2005. Genoa is the third Italian city to hold the title, after Florence in 1986 and Bologna in 2000, but due to a new rotation system, Italy wont host the event again until 2019. Genoa shares the title this year with Lille in France.

GeNova04

Genoas programme, which was inaugurated with spectacular New Years celebrations in the old port and will continue until January 2005, will comprise about 200 events dedicated to art, music, literature, science, children, history and sport, as well as 90 conferences and international conventions, and major structural works. The goal of GeNova04, a the programme is called, is not simply to attract tourists, but to make real, long-term improvements that will benefit the local population.

Over 30 million have been budgeted for the events and promotion of GeNova04, while 190 million will go to construction work, renovations and the improvement of the citys cultural resources. The money will come from a combination of public and private funding, including state, regional, provincial and city authorities, EU bodies and some of Genoas banks.

The central theme to all of the years activities is travel. In one sense, this means travel through history and culture, under the umbrella of initiatives titled Genova Citt dArte, which includes large-scale renovation work on Genoas museums and palaces, as well as some major exhibitions. The impressive museum-street of Via Garibaldi, where some of Italys finest renaissance palaces stand, is being transformed into a new polo museale. The renovation work the first since world war two for many of the city-run museums is due to be completed in May, including a new street-lighting system, the reopening of Palazzo Bianco, and a new atrium and roof-top viewing platform for Palazzo Rosso. Other museums are scheduled to open in the summer; a new Museo di Genova e della Genovesit in the lighthouse, or lanterna, and a group of museums, including a gallery of modern art, in the suburb of Nervi.

The second interpretation of the theme is travel by sea; Genova Capitale del Mare looks at the citys maritime history and the technological innovations that go with it. Two new museums dedicated to the sea and navigation are due to open, and exhibitions and festivals will celebrate scientific advances in the city.

Finally, a journey through Genoa of the future looks at urban planning and social relations in Genova Citt Contemporanea, with conferences and exhibitions.

From riches to rags

Genoa did well as a maritime republic for centuries, coming to the height of her power in the 1600s. Many of the citys most impressive buildings and art stem from that era. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Genoa embraced the industrial revolution and sprouted railway lines and steelworks. While the city did tolerably well earlier last century, with a busy port and prospering heavy industry, the last 50 years have been a steady decline. Matters were not helped by much of the city being bombed flat in world war two. The place was being abandoned even by its own inhabitants, who emigrated in thousands. The exhibition I transatlantici, due to open this summer at the new maritime museum, is dedicated to the millions of people who in the early 20th century boarded ships in Genoa to start a new life in the Americas. The gap left by the departing Genoese is now being filled by immigrants; in parts of the city south American Spanish is heard far more than Italian.

Another revival?

This is not the first time that there is talk of renewal and reinvention in Genoa. In recent decades the city has had more than its fair share of opportunities and money to get it out of its rut. Genoa was in the international spotlight in 2001 when it hosted the G8 summit. Whatever the politicians and demonstrators objectives were, from the citys point of view the meeting was a disaster. After years of building a reputation as a conference venue, a weekend of television footage of demonstrators, police brutality and the death of one protester, did little to instill confidence in any future investors.

In 1992 the city was completely renovated for the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, the citys most famous son. There were exhibitions, conferences and major structural works. Renzo Piano, probably Italys most famous contemporary architect and definitely the most famous modern-day Genoese, got his hands on the old port of the city, transforming disused warehouses and piers into modern conference spaces and museums.

Most importantly, in 1992 the aquarium came to Genoa. The largest structure of its kind in Europe, this marine zoo juts out into the port in a boat-shaped building, also designed by Piano. Its 71 tanks are home to 600 species of animals and 200 species of plants, featuring reconstructions of all imaginable types of marine habitats. With 1.5 million visitors per year, it is perhaps the true motor of Genoas tourist industry.

A last chance

Predictably, there have been plenty of problems in the organisation of this years events. The collapse of the scaffolding erected to build the Musei del Mare e della Navigazione in November, which killed one person, raised questions about whether the city was sacrificing safety and quality to meet deadlines. The fact that most of the museums due to reopen in May were still building sites in February is not reassuring either. And the old problem of Genoas steelworkers, many of whom risk being laid off in the near future, still has not been resolved, resulting in a new wave of strikes.

Genoa is a place of contrasts that deserves thorough exploration, and yet it has long struggled to become more than a brief stopover for people heading on to a Riviera holiday. If the city manages to get everything ready in time, and if the reality is half as good as the marketing, then GeNova04 will be a great opportunity to attract visitors. Whether this will placate the citys steelworkers or stop the creation of immigrant ghettos in the city is another matter.

For a full programme and more information see www.genova-2004.it.

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LEt di Rubens.

Dimore, collezionisti e committenti genovesi.

When the organisers of GeNova04 suggested to Piero Boccardi, director of the citys Palazzo Rosso museum, that he set up an exhibition on Rubens to follow on from the major retrospective in Lille, he despaired. It seemed obvious to me that there was a real risk of ending up competing with Lille, or becoming the second part of the exhibition and so taking second place as capital of culture, he said. So I made a counter-suggestion: to stage an exhibition on the theme of Rubens, including both paintings and architecture, to shed light on the specific role of Genoa of the time.

The show is divided into three sections: residences, collectors and commissioners that Rubens would have encountered when he was in Genoa in the early 1600s. Rubens, Boccardi explained, was no mere painter or a passing tourist. He was in Genoa as an employee of the Duke of Mantua, acting as the Dukes envoy on a delicate diplomatic mission to Spain. He originally came to Genoa to see the Dukes bankers about claiming back his travel expenses. He was so impressed by the handsome palaces and churches built by the Genoese that on his return to Flanders he compiled a book of drawings and explanations about the citys architecture. A talented linguist, he wrote the book in Italian, explaining that although there were more beautiful palaces in the world than those of Genoa, these were usually owned by royalty, whereas those in Genoa belonged to the working bourgeoisie.

Rubens painted 15 portraits of important Genoese during his time in the city, all of which feature in the show. It was a novelty, Boccardi explained, that anyone in Genoa who could afford an artist like Rubens could hire him. Genoas doge had only nominal powers, and there was no court to dictate the fashions of art, so artists had more freedom than usual.

Important Genoese were commissioning paintings from artists including Caraccio, Van Dyck and Veronese, and were building prestigious collections, both for practical and aesthetic purposes. According to Boccardi, when the bankers wanted to decorate their fine palaces, they found that paintings were cheaper than tapestries, and so often opted to cover their walls floor-to-ceiling with them. The exhibition features samples from 15 original Genoese art collections, which have now been dispersed around the world.

20 March-11 July, Palazzo Ducale,

tel. 010562390, www.palazzoducale.genova.it.

Picture: The Bigo, built in 1992 by architect Renzo Piano, has become as much of a symbol of Genoa as the historic lighthouse.