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Book Review


Nicholas Walton, Genoa, 'La Superba': The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower. London: Hurst & Company, 2015. Pp. xx + 218. Bibliography and Index. $19.95 (paper).


     British journalist Nicholas Walton really loves Genoa. Through the pages of this monograph the author transports the reader to the chaotic medieval streets of the city, to its most beautiful and somewhat hidden sites, and to its most marvelous culinary treats. Several chapters deal with diverse historical moments or processes that the author chose to include, perhaps haphazardly, such as the bubonic plague, the achievements of Genoese admiral Andrea Doria, or the rivalry between Genoa and Venice. The main purpose of Walton, who is married to a Genoese woman and lived in the city for a time, is to reclaim Genoa's place in history. He argues that while tourist magnets of Italy, Rome, Venice, and Florence, have overshadowed this town, one must not discard the role played by this pirate haven throughout the centuries.

     The book is structured in twenty-one chapters, the longest of which is only twelve pages. As the author confesses in the introduction, these are arranged as he saw fit according to his background as a reporter and his goal of telling "stories that matter" (xx). The first chapter starts with a visit to the centro storico (a concept the author chooses to use instead of its exact English translation, historical center) of Genoa to describe the attractive decadence of the city through the stories of transsexual prostitutes. Walton turns to explain the geographic characteristics of Liguria. In the second chapter the author illustrates the importance of the sea in the history of the city. In the third, he focuses on those less fortunate and analyzes the history of welfare institutions such as the Ospitale della Commenda di San Giovanni di Prè or the Albergo dei Poveri. Chapter four asserts that the traditional meals of mountainous Liguria (for example, the focaccia) came from an "unpromising geographical backdrop" (36), with little farmland but access to a wide range of herbs and mushrooms from the mountain slopes. In chapter five Walton addresses the fascinating rivalry between Genoa and Venice, citing the famous battle of Curzola. In the next he narrates the devastation generated by the 1342 bubonic plague, which entered Europe through the then Genoese controlled port of Caffa. Number seven is about nationalist movements in the region, particularly a bizarre secessionist movement that arose in a town named Serboga in the 1960s. The following chapter pays attention to piracy and pirates such as Barbarossa and how this phenomenon constituted a key factor in the history of the city. Chapter nine is a follow-up to the previous one and focuses on Barbarossa's rival, Andrea Doria (under the questionable title "The Steve Jobs of the Mediterranean"), whom the author clearly admires. Chapter ten is dedicated to the battle of Lepanto, the shifting interest of the great European powers from the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic, and how Genoa reinvented itself from commercial port city to financial hub and lender to the Spanish crown. The eleventh chapter briefly reconstructs the lives of Genoese explorers, such as Enrico D'Alberis, Giovani Caboto, and, of course, Cristopher Columbus; the author proposes that more physical recognition to these historical figures is deserved (certainly a polemic contention). Chapter twelve shifts from famous locals to notorious visitors, mostly English travelers such as Charles Dickens, who visited the city on the Grand Tour. The author quotes their shocked reactions to, for instance, Genoa's dirt and insolent women. In chapter thirteen the author relates how the 1797 Napoleonic invasion of the region marked the end of the Republic of Genoa, which had been originally established in 1005. The next chapter explains how the city became the exit point for thousands of people who left Italy for the Americas after the Resorgimento and the unification of Italy lead by Italian national heroes Giuseppe Mazzini, who was born in Genoa, and Giuseppe Garibaldi. Changing the subject drastically, in chapter fifteen Walton writes about one of his favorite dishes, pesto, and in chapter sixteen, one of his most beloved sports, football. In number seventeen the author returns to the maritime world and relates the 1956 sinking of the ship Andrea Doria as the centerpiece to his discussion about the important role of shipbuilding in recent Ligurian history. Chapter eighteen argues that the imprint left by Benito Mussolini in Genoa was scarce and asserts that after the war fascist fugitives left Italy from this port city. The next chapter is about the golden 1980s, in which the Italian economy grew strongly. Chapter twenty focuses on a 2011 storm that affected the Ligurian coast severely. Finally, the last chapter is a passionate account of a football match the author witnessed between the two main teams of the city in an atmosphere that made him feel "proud" that his son "was half-Genoese" (199). Walton reiterates his encouragement for readers to visit this marvelous Mediterranean city.

     While La Superba is certainly entertaining it is not a history book per se. The book reads more as a loosely connected collection of well-crafted historical vignettes than a cohesive narrative about Genoa's history. As the author himself warns, most chapters are about a topic that does not follow (even chronologically) the previous one. The compilation suffers from a lack of a unifying thread. The result is that, ultimately, rather than a traditional history essay, the book comes across as a combination between a travel journal and a well-documented guidebook directed at potential visitors from the Anglosphere.1 Walton mentions his surprise at the cheapness of the meals (39) and recommends places to drink excellent wine (41). It seems the author has a biased and at times an arguably Orientalizing perspective on Italy (and, I would add, Southern Europe), when he makes problematic assumptions like: "I do not think many Italians are familiar with Roald Dahl" (101).

     There are some historical inaccuracies that could be addressed in a second edition. The "Moors" were not expelled from Spain in 1492 (xiii and 74); it was the Jews who were expelled by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492. King Philip III expelled the Moorish denizens of Spain much later, through a series of decrees published between 1609 and 1614. Perhaps Walton was referring to the conquest of Granada. Nor did fascist Italy invade Ethiopia in 1936 (166); the invasion took place in 1935. Similarly, when maintaining the names in its original language, there are some minor misspellings regarding the use of accents: "Delegaciòn Argentina de Inmigraciòn en Europa" (174) should be "Delegación" and "Inmigración."

     Genoa, 'La Superba' is a well-written and well-paced book. Its combination of the author's personal experiences with specific historical characters gives the story a human approach that is sure to capture the attention of a broad audience of curious readers. The use of this book in its entirety in the classroom may not be ideal. However, teachers could take advantage of the book's diversity by assigning certain chapters to high school and first-year undergraduate students in order to underscore how history can be written through a variety of approaches. A broad audience will surely enjoy many of the romantic themes in the book such as Mediterranean warfare and piracy, Grand Tour literature, and Ligurian cuisine. It is successful in drawing the public's attention to this remarkable city.

Mariona Lloret is a Ph.D. candidate at Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Barcelona. She is currently finishing her thesis on Huey Long in the context of the Greater Caribbean. She can be reached at



1 The author actually has a piece on the travel section of The Guardian. Nicholas Walton, "Vivid green pesto, great wine and fabulous walks … Genoa is a city of indulgence for Nicholas Walton", The Guardian, August 14, 2015, [accessed November 17, 2015].



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