Now, 654 years later, Genoa is in an even worse mess. The people have had enough. And once again they are about to elect directly, for the first time since the Second World War, a leader who may be able to restore the city's fortunes.
Nine candidates are competing for the recently enhanced role of mayor in the municipal elections on Sunday. Whether any of them has what it takes - or can inspire a composer as Simone Boccanegra did Verdi - remains to be seen. It will be harder this time.
Long gone are the glory days when Genoa was a great trading sea- power, sweeping the Moors from the Mediterranean, rivalling Venice and producing the man who 'discovered' America. But not so long ago it was a great port and shipbuilding and industrial city, the rich and attractive centre of the once-lovely Italian Riviera.
Now that too has gone. Genoa la Superba - the Haughty - is now Genoa the Sad. Its port is a backwater, many industries dead or dying. The population is ageing and shrinking: more people die here now than are born. People with talent and energy are leaving town, those with money invest it elsewhere. Its 500th anniversary celebrations of Columbus's first voyage to the New World were an embarrassing flop. Sometimes, says Giovanni Baget Bozzo, priest, newspaper columnist and a leading intellectual in the city, 'it seems as if the city has decided to die'.
The candidates blame it on previous administrations. For 18 years the city council was dominated by the former Communists. The previous mayor was jailed for alleged incompetence. If corruption was less rampant than elsewhere, Fr Baget Bozzo points out, it was because most decisions affecting Genoa were made and 'bought' in Rome.
Some things were inevitable: the shipbuilding, steelworks, armaments and engineering industries were mostly doomed anyway. They were state-owned industries which anaesthetised Genoa's entrepreneurial spirit and made many citizens dependent on state largesse. Others were self-inflicted: the dockers, enjoying power and privileges dating back centuries, fought change, priced the port out of the market and watched upstart La Spezia along the coast become the Mediterranean's biggest container port.
The Genoese are quiet, private people, not given to making a fuss. 'We are like the English,' one is told. But this year two disasters, caused by sheer political neglect, became the last straw. One was the explosion of violence in the old town. While other European cities had lovingly restored their historic centres, Genoa's Communists moved its inhabitants to modern blocks scarring the hillsides above the city and allowed the beautiful old houses and picturesque alleys, once the centre of the city's vast power and wealth, to rot. They became the refuge of immigrants, many of them illegal: Senegalese, Tunisians, Algerians and Latin Americans. The place became a centre for drug-trafficking, smuggling, prostitution and crime.
Foreigners became as numerous as the locals who, terrified to go out at night, formed vigilante groups. Tension mounted and riots broke out. Now the area is heavily policed, but Genoese are still afraid to go there after dark. The other was flooding after torrential rain, for the second year in a row. Shopkeepers, small businesses and families still awaiting compensation for the destruction of their wares, belongings and homes because of the lack of efficient drainage and precautions, had them all devastated again. That they could not forgive.
This is fertile ground for the Northern League, which hopes in Sunday's elections to spread its power to remaining areas of the North. Its local founder and leader, former restaurant-owner Bruno Ravera, is a cheery, colourful character who has printed Genoa's own money (just a gimmick), refuses to recognise the authority of the local prefect (Rome's representative) and is unconvincing when he says he does not want the north to secede.
His candidate is a mild and modest orthopaedics professor, Enrico Serra, who ended an election rally this week with the words: 'Sorry if I bored you.' He is second in the polls with around 24 per cent. The favourite at around 40 per cent is an equally inexperienced but better known candidate, Adriano Sansa, a local magistrate. A brave forerunner of Milan's 'Clean Hands' corruption investigators, he uncovered a huge petrol racket in the 1970s, but the politicians quietly buried it.
Simone Boccanegra's problem was keeping peace among the fractious nobility. The future mayor, for all his weighted majority, personal power and virtually assured of four years in office, faces a lack of funds, a sclerotic bureaucracy and obstructive laws.
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