Nicholas Walton. Genoa 'La Superba': The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower.
As a non-academic history of Genoa, Nicholas Walton's Genoa 'La Superba': The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower promises to fill a gap. Though far from the first book of its kind, a quick Amazon search can confirm that La Superba receives considerably less literary attention than its old rival, the more tourist-friendly Serenissima Venice. Walton's prose is compelling and his book is interspersed with quirky anecdotes and gripping historical narratives. However, it fails to deliver the cohesive history that its subtitle promises, returning instead to various stories of the present-day that seem better suited to the pages of a travel magazine than to a single volume.
Walton's writing is at its best when he zooms in on a historical moment or personage. He first narrates the path that led the medieval Genoese to slave, trading and piracy alongside other, more acceptable forms of trade in a maritime economy. After the fall of the Roman Empire but before the rise of Genoa's military and trade rivalry with Venice, the city built up a robust naval power, which it used for both good and ill. He really hits his stride, however, when he reaches the rivalry between the two cities. The book as a whole would be more compelling with more content like Walton's account of the galley Battle of Curzola. It is unfortunate that the great maritime rivalry is afforded only a brief chapter, though it is an exciting one. The very next segment, on separatist movements, interrupts the historical narrative for curious anecdotes.
Readers get another taste of Walton's compelling accounts of naval history in his description of the rise of the Ottoman naval power and of the intense rivalry between Andrea Doria and Khizr Barbarossa. He tells the story of the aging Doria quietly passing his rival's fleet in the midst of mounting tension. The drama builds nicely to Walton's description of the decisive battle of Lepanto, but his account of the "end of the Mediterranean" that follows it suffers from the anecdotal nature of the previous chapters. These pages move from sixteenth century changes in trade to fourteenth century conflicts of Guelphs and Ghibellines and back again, so readers could be forgiven for losing their place or for being taken out of the story. Still, they will find Walton's description of the transition from the galley to the sail insightful and interesting.
Walton is back in his element when describing the quirks of Captain Enrico D'Albertis. "Just one of his eyebrows," he writes," would have made most other men's moustaches wilt with envy" (101). So begins his account of the man who once brought home a tiger from India as a pet. As he did with Andrea Doria, the author manages to take an eccentric historical figure and use his adventures and oddities to sum up something about the spirit of Genoa in his historical moment.
Afterwards, Walton's history feels rather staccato. He jumps from pesto to soccer to shipbuilding to the fascist era and back to soccer again, with hardly a thread connecting one chapter to the next. These pages are not devoid of moving or exciting moments--Walton recounts the sinking of the Andrea Doria, for example, with all the gusto that characterizes the best of his earlier chapters--but they read more like individual short essays.
Overall, the book suffers from the author's apparent indecision as to whether to write a history or a travelogue. As a history, especially one organized around the colorful characters that Walton describes with such relish, like Andrea Doria, Khizr Barbarossa, Enrico D'Albertis, Giuseppe Mazzini, and Don Andrea Gallo, the book would have been much more successful. While Walton's affection for the port city comes through perhaps most vividly in his contemporary anecdotes, they are disjointed and, ultimately, unsatisfying. For instance, in the first chapter Walton sets the scene for Genoa's story by describing an encounter with a community of trans prostitutes in the city center's vicoli. He romanticizes Genoa's tolerance of these women and their cis-gender colleagues while only briefly and shallowly considering the social issues surrounding their marginalization. Of course, Walton would not be the first to sentimentalize prostitution as a trait of the port city while lightly skirting over the factors that lead women to choose--or not choose, but practice anyways--the profession. The great Fabrizio De Andre did the same. The singer-songwriter's name is oddly absent in Walton's stories, however. Though two different contemporary characters--one of the prostitutes interviewed and Don Andrea Gallo--directly cite "Via del Campo," Walton fails to mention the song and the singer, and even mistakenly attributes the quotation to Don Gallo himself.
This omission in some ways serves to summarize the weaknesses of the book as a whole. While the historical narrative is vibrant and compelling, the contemporary travelogue is at times out of place, even if enthusiastic. Walton is an excellent ambassador for the historical Genoa of Andrea Doria and Enrico D'Albertis, but contemporary Genoa's soul, if such a thing can be described, has perhaps more of De Andre than of Columbus in it.
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2017|
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