Liguria - Background information

Natural history
People and culture

Fortezza del Priamar, Liguria, Italy by Maudanros/ShutterstockSavona's Fortezza del Priamàr is a superb example of 16th-century military architecture © Maudanros, Shutterstock


Abridged from the History section in Liguria: the Bradt Travel Guide

Genoa becomes a superpower

From the year 1000, the history of Liguria was dominated by Genoa. Genoa was the most powerful of the city states and built an empire in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea with Liguria as its Italian power base. It took control of the Tyrrhenian Sea after the Battle of Meloria in 1284 when Genoa crushed its great rival Pisa, making it the most powerful maritime republic in the Mediterranean. The defeat of Pisa was followed by the Battle of Curzola, in which Genoa defeated the Venetians, although it was to eventually prove a pyrrhic victory. By 1232 nearly all of the Riviera di Levante was under Genoese control. Many of the more powerful city states held out against Genoa’s growing power, among them Ventimiglia, Albenga and Savona, the last only capitulating in 1528.

These conflicts were complicated by the feudal faction fighting within the Genoese state. Most of this fighting went on in Genoa itself and the city was divided into warring fiefdoms. As one family saw their influence inside the city wane they often retired to their power bases in Liguria and battled against those who were in power from outside the confines of the city itself.

In order to win political battles at home Genoa’s leading families often sought the support of their powerful neighbours. Instability at home between the 14th and 16th centuries meant that overall control of the republic passed backwards and forwards between the dukes of Milan and the French. It was a situation that was only aggravated by the battles between the Ghelphs and Ghibellines that consumed much of Italy for two centuries. It dragged foreign powers further into local Ligurian politics. The Visconti of Milan, who favoured the Ghibellines, who in turn supported the papacy, gave support to the Fieschis and the Grimaldis.

The French, who favoured the Ghelphs, who in turn supported the Holy Roman Emperor, supported the Spinolas and the Dorias. French influence came to an end when the mighty Admiral Andrea Doria allied with Spain in 1528. Under his rule Genoa dominated the western Mediterranean and he imposed a form of aristocratic government, which gave the republic relative stability for about 250 years.

At their peak the Genoese had settlements in Acre, Jerusalem, Constantinople and around the Black Sea. The last was crucial as it linked Genoa into a great trading route, the Silk Road, which led to China.

The Genoese nobility were so rich and their feasts so lavish that in 1484 Cardinal Paolo Fregoso introduced laws regulating the use of sugar and codified what sorts of foods could be eaten at celebrations within the city limits; it was this law that prompted many rich Genoese patricians to build their villas outside the city, in territory not covered by the cardinal’s edict.

Genoa’s empire in the Near East contracted first with the collapse of the Crusader states and came to an end with the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, which brought an end to business in the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea but not to Liguria’s growing wealth. The Ligurian nobility now engaged in major financial speculation. Their alliance with Spain meant that the Genoese nobility used their enormous wealth to bankroll the Spanish conquest of the Americas and they took most of the profits in interest on their loans.

Natural history

Although forest fires, pollution and the use of pesticides have made life difficult for wildlife it is still possible to encounter some interesting animals and beautiful butterflies up in the high mountain valleys. Among the animals to look out for are the rare red partridge, the small European gecko and the magnificent butterfly known locally as the ninfa del corbezzolo, the nymph of the strawberry tree. There are also rare otters, short-toed eagles and the large speckled lizard.

Wolves have put in an appearance and in 2004, a wolf with a radio collar migrated from the Emilian Apennines to the Maritime Alps. Up in the mountains there are lots of small mammals, foxes, martens, badgers, field mice, hedgehogs and wild boar, the last of which you are most likely to see at night up in the mountains. Roe and fallow deer have been reintroduced in some areas.

The snake population includes the ladder snake, the Aesculapian snake, the European whip snake, the smooth snake and the viper. Salamanders can be seen during the day up in the mountains or in small caves.

Many sea birds thrive here, such as gannets, shearwaters, seagulls and cormorants. During migration periods, swallows and ducks take a break in Liguria. In the marshy areas of the river deltas you will find herons and cranes. Apart from the normal birds such as blackbirds, finches, etc, many hedge sparrows, blue rock thrushes, woodpeckers, wrynecks, red eyes and cuckoos can be seen all the way up into the mountains. Owls and birds of prey are common. Little owl, Scops owl and barn owl live near villages, but the long-eared owl, tawny owl and eagle owl are very shy. The birds of prey that live here include the snake eagle, common buzzard, black kite, Eurasian kestrel, honey buzzard, sparrowhawk and sharp-shinned hawk, and on the cliff faces along the coast one can often see golden eagles and peregrine falcons.

The sea is not as rich here as one would imagine and due to pollution there are now far fewer fish than there once were. Furthermore, the narrow coastal shelf and the lack of tides restrict the growth of nutrients that fish need. The catch consists of what Italians call pesce azzurro: fresh sardines and anchovies. There are also mussels, cuttlefish, squid, octopus and clams.

The Romans called the Ligurian coast the whale coast. It is home to a variety of sea mammals including blue dolphins and sperm whales. They rarely come close to shore but always be on the lookout for them, as you might be lucky. They are now protected thanks to the creation of the Pelagos Marine Sanctuary which stretches from the Côte d’Azur to Tuscany. There are many companies offering whale-watching excursions (avvistamento di cetacei) along the coast and although it is pricey it is well worth the experience. Ask at the local tourist office for details or see the website of Whale Watch Liguria (

People and culture

About 90% of the population of Liguria live along the coast, 40% of them in Genoa. By contrast, the hilly and mountainous inland has been progressively abandoned as the population has moved to the coast where the jobs are nowadays, especially in the service industries. Temperamentally, the old adage is that those who live along the western Riviera di Ponente are more open than those who live on the rocky east coast, where people are generally considered to be more taciturn. The Genoese have a reputation rather akin to the Scots of being stingy and dour. Virgil dubbed the Ligurians hard workers and the Romans considered them crafty.

Liguria has produced a disproportionate number of explorers. Probably the most famous Ligurian is Christopher Columbus, who discovered the Americas in 1492, but Recco gave the world Nicoloso da Recco who claimed the Azores for Portugal, and Varazze Lanzarotte Malocello, who reached the Canaries in 1456. Noli’s Antoniotto Usodimare discovered the Cape Verde Islands in 1456 and Savona’s Leon Pancaldo was Magellan’s pilot when he first circumnavigated the globe in 1519–22.

With so many men at sea it’s no surprise that the women had a reputation for being tough and hard working. Numerous travellers from the era of the Grand Tour remarked on their beauty and one, Simonetta Cattaneo, was immortalised by Botticelli as Venus.

While the villages of the entroterra are remote, Genoa is a multi-ethnic city. In the 1950s and 60s in particular, it attracted an influx of workers from the bordering regions and from the south. Since then it has attracted a sizeable immigrant community from north and west Africa and South America.


Liguria has always been something of an artistic backwater and although the wealth of Genoa attracted some famous artists, the Genoese preferred not to spend their money on too many frivolities. In the early Middle Ages, it was mainly Tuscan artists who worked in Liguria, like Maestro Guglielmo, who painted the Crucifixion in Sarzana Cathedral.

The 15th century saw a move to the Lombard and Piedmontese schools. The family of sculptors, the Gaggini, were active in Genoa, as were the painters Donato de’ Bardi and Vincenzo Foppa of Padua. The big local name of the time was Ludovico Brea, who was born in nearby Nice. His paintings are very impressive and can be seen all over Liguria, especially in Taggia. Bernardo Strozzi also created a number of masterpieces at this time.

Genoese art began to develop in the 16th century, when the great Florentine painter Perin del Vaga, who worked with Michelangelo, was summoned to Genoa by Andrea Doria to adorn his new Palazzo dei Principe. He was a leading light in the style of Mannerism which introduced elements of abstraction and distortion into art. In all del Vaga spent eight years painting in Genoa. His work inspired the Ligurian artist Luca Cambiaso, who also painted commissions for Philip II of Spain. Other well-known local artists of the time were the Semino brothers Andrea and Ottavio, Bernardo Castello, and Cambiaso’s pupil Lazzaro Tavarone, whose speciality was depicting Genoese epics like Columbus’s discovery of America. Also from Cambiaso’s school came Giovanni Battista Paggi and Domenico Fiasella.

The 17th century was the heyday of art in Liguria. A new influence on Genoese artists arrived when the Jesuits purchased Rubens’s Circumcision in 1605 and the Miracles of St Ignatius in 1620 to decorate Genoa’s church of Sant’Ambrogio. Rubens’s friend Cornelis de Wael opened a studio in Genoa in 1642 and spent 50 years painting maritime scenes. In the early 17th century, Sinibaldo Scorza became Liguria’s first landscape painter.

Between 1621 and 1627 Van Dyck based himself in Genoa, painting a number of important works for the city’s noble families, and had a considerable influence on the local painters, among them Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari and the brothers, Giovanni Andrea and Giovanni Battista Carlone.

Flemish painters like Van Dyck also had an influence on Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Il Grechetto, who was one of the best Genoese painters of the century. Pastoral scenes were also the forte of Antonio Travi, I Sestri, who came from Sestre Ponente. One of the great exponents of the Baroque was Valerio Castello. The plague killed off many in this talented generation of artists leaving Domenico Piola as the master in his field, whose work can be seen in the most important palaces in Genoa. His rival was Gregorio de Ferrari, with whom he painted some of the ceilings of the Palazzo Rosso.       


Multi-coloured houses in Manarola by TessarThe Tegu

Liguria’s towns and villages are immediately recognisable by their tall houses painted in pastel colours and decorated with trompe l’oeil paintings that impressed both Petrarch and Montaigne. Trompe l’oeil wasn’t invented here but Ligurians made it their own. Some might say it was their famous miserliness that attracted them to it as it was easier to paint a balcony than build one. Many of the villages were built on steep hillsides to protect them from pirate raids and cluster around an elegant central church with a beautiful painted spire. The streets run in concentric circles so if an attack occurred it was easier to defend.               

Medieval buildings are characterised by their black-and-white striped façades. The cathedral of San Lorenzo in Genoa is a classic example of this sort of architecture. It was at this point that large palaces began to be built in Genoa by the city’s rich merchants. The running battles raged by the warring families in Liguria led to the construction of many castles and towers.

(Photo: Evening light in Manarola © Tessar The Tegu, Shutterstock)


Liguria’s musical life took off in the 19th century when the opera house, the Teatro Carlo Felice, was built. It was bombed in World War II but rebuilt in the 1980s, and is a cutting-edge theatre. Liguria’s music star is the violinist Niccolò Paganini, who was born in Genoa at the end of the 18th century, and the city is home to the Niccolò Paganini music conservatory. Genoa is also the hometown of Fabio Armiliato, the opera star, who played the singing undertaker in Woody Allen’s To Rome With Love. Sanremo hosts the annual Sanremo Song Festival that inspired the Eurovision Song Contest.


Liguria has attracted and inspired some of the most famous writers in history. Byron and Shelley both spent a considerable amount of time here and Shelley drowned off the coast between Lerici and Livorno. Liguria fascinated some of the greatest talents, prompting Dickens and Henry James to write long accounts of their travels here. Others like D H Lawrence, who found the inspiration for Lady Chatterley’s Lover here, drew on their own experiences of the culture and, for Lawrence in particular, the force of nature. The Scottish surgeon Tobias Smollett put the region on the map for the British when he published a series of 41 letters of his accounts of travelling along the Riviera from Nice to Genoa in 1764. Liguria also has its own homegrown writers, among them Italo Calvino, who grew up in Sanremo, and the Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale.

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