The taxi driver stops at the end of a dark alleyway leading up from the harbour. “It isn’t safe round here,” he advises. I press the bell to the, ‘new flat on the seventh floor in the historic area of Genoa.’ The heavy, wooden door swings open and I enter a dingy but handsome hallway with a marble staircase. The flat might be new but the building is centuries old, a palazzo perhaps that belonged to a rich Genoan merchant. And of course there is no lift. I can’t ask the owner to help with my luggage as he is in Monte Carlo. And I really don’t fancy walking up seven flights of stairs in this dimly lit stairwell late at night.
Fortunately there is a hotel not a stone’s throw away with a cheery looking all-night porter. As I stroll through the carrugi – the narrow alleys that wind up from the port, my fear of Porto Antico subsides. People sip vermentino in the piazzas or queue up at small shops for focaccia. Men play cards under the arches that line the harbour. Street sellers, probably from west or north Africa, display bags, wallets and purses on the pavement, anxious for a purchase. As I look down towards the port I glimpse a sail, a boat’s mast. As I turn a corner I see another church crucifix. Above me people’s laundry, strung across the alleyway, blocks out the occasional patch of blue sky. This is a busy lively port with a touch of gentrification that has lost neither its charm nor its edginess.
I head towards the Cattedrale de San Lorenzo, distinctive with its black and white stone strips – a masterpiece of Gothic art built on a pre-existing Romanesque structure. San Matteo, too, in a nearby beautiful piazzetta has similar stone stripes as do the surrounding palazzos.
The old town is full of elegant palaces from the Palazzo Ducale to the palaces along Via Garibaldi that belonged to the Genoese nobility in the 16th century. 42 of the 120 palaces that remain are designated UNESCO heritage sites. But I am not in Genoa to admire the dazzling Hall or Mirrors in the Palazzo Reale, once the home of the Savoy royal family. Nor to linger over the Caravaggio paintings in the Palazzo Bianco. I am here to visit the Galata Sea and Migration Museum that traces the evolution of this bustling port from the late Middle Ages to the present day.
I head to the top floor, pick up a passport and follow in the steps of 29 million Italians, who in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, emigrated from Italy, many through Genoa.
I fall lucky. When I present my ticket to the customs officer I find out I am a famous actress, Eleonara Duse. He gives the struggling peasant farm workers from Liguria and Lombardy a much harder time.
I walk along the reconstructed harbour and hear the abuse of an innkeeper who is making a tidy profit by renting out beds to hopeful emigrants. I get on board the steamer Citta di Tornno and enter the third class women’s dormitory. Children, except for boys over seven, also slept here. I sit on bunk beds and listen to harrowing accounts of the cramped and unhealthy conditions.
There were three main destinations. Argentina where migrants were given free accommodation in Hotel des Immigrants in Buenos Aires and a rail ticket to the pampas but where working and living conditions were excruciating.
Brazil, where Italian migrants, following the abolition of slavery in 1888, took on the slaves’ work on coffee plantations. And lastly New York where, at Ellis Island, hopeful migrants were subject to questioning, literacy and intelligence tests. I present my passport but underestimate how much money I need and am rejected. In real life Eleonara Duse was accepted, toured north and south America and had a colourful love life with both men and women. In fact only 5% of migrants were rejected but for that 5% it was devastating.
1973 was a turning point for Italy. It was then that there were more people who migrated to Italy than left it. The focus of the gallery changes, encouraging the visitor to see parallels between emigrants from Italy over one and a half centuries and more recent migrants to Italy. I place large postcards on a screen to activate the stories of migrants from Senegal, Nigeria and Afghanistan. Most moving of all is the retelling of the story of two young boys from Guinea who stowed away on an aeroplane. They were found dead on arrival at Amsterdam airport with a letter to the United Nations in their pocket.
As moving is a boat that was washed up on Lampedusa displayed alongside a moving film footage of a rescue and migrants’ personal objects – who knows whether the owners’ lived or died .
In a section provocatively titled, ‘‘ Who’s Stealing our Jobs?’ I discover how migrants have fulfilled certain employment gaps and in an interactive classroom I listen to children read out their own stories of migration. In a lighter vein I watch TV cookery programmes delivered by cheery migrants from Ecuador, Senegal, Morocco and Romania.
As I leave I am asked if migration is good for my country, the community I live in or for me. It is a questionnaire that, through Sites of Conscience, is being asked in other countries. Italy, it seems, is more tolerant than Belgium. So is it possible that the legacy of waves of emigration of Italians makes them more empathetic to today’s immigrants?
I walk back to my hotel along Via Po that runs parallel to the harbour. Known as the African quarter it is full of small shops selling African material, black hair products and halal meat. 1973 might have been the year when more people migrated to Italy than left it. But Genoa, as a port, has always been a place to where people have come and from where people have left and from all over the world; where stories of migration and emigration are inevitably entwined.