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Medieval drawing of the city of Genoa (1493)

Medieval drawing of the city of Genoa, Italy (1493)

Genoa in the Early Middle Ages

Around 900 AD, the Holy Roman Empire began to lose control of Italy, and Genoa was among the Italian cities that got their independence about this time. Genoa became one of the first medieval cities where citizens won some political rights. Genoa’s independence started badly when a Fatimid fleet burned and sacked the city in 934 AD.

(More about the Holy Roman Empire)

Genoa trades with Egypt

But the people of Genoa quickly rebuilt the town. Soon Genoa was trading with the Fatimids and getting rich buying silkpapersteelcotton, and sugar and selling them to Europeans. In return, Genoa sold European wool cloth, perfume, wine, furs, silver, and gold to the Egyptians.

(More about the Fatimids in Egypt)

The Counts of Canossa

Matilda of Canossa (Vatican Museum)

Matilda of Canossa (Vatican Museum) ruled Genoa in the 1000s AD

In the 1000s, Genoa fell under the control of the Counts of Canossa, but once Matilda of Canossa died in 1115 Genoa was independent again and had one of the largest navies in the Mediterranean Sea. Genoa used those ships to conquer nearby towns, and through the Middle Ages Genoa controlled Sardinia, Corsica, and a number of other places as well as the area around Genoa itself. During the early Crusades, Genoa also conquered some land around Jerusalem, in Greece, in Sicily, and in North Africa.

(More about the First Crusade)

Republican government of medieval Genoa

In theory, Genoa remained inside the Holy Roman Empire, and the Christian bishop ruled the town. Really, the men of Genoa elected two consuls every year to run the city, as in ancient Rome. As in the Roman Republic, most political power soon fell into the hands of a few powerful families. Men stopped women from voting, but women in the leading families could get some political power anyway.

Medieval paper mill in Fabriano, Italy, established in 1276 AD

Medieval paper mill in Fabriano, Italy, established in 1276 AD

(More about republics)

Genoa did very well in the 1200s thanks to an alliance with the Byzantines. Together Genoa and the Byzantines defeated Pisa and Venice, and dominated the Mediterranean. But when the bubonic plague – the Black Death – reached Genoa in 1347, many people died, and Genoa became much weaker.

(More about the Black Death)

Christopher Columbus

In the late 1300s Genoa lost her overseas land to the Ottoman Empire and other states, and eventually came under the control of the city of Milan. Genoa’s people looked for new ways to make money. They expanded paper-making factories to replace the Egyptian paper factories that collapsed after the plague. Later, by around 1450, people started to grow lemons and cotton. Genoa’s great sailors began to look elsewhere for their fortunes – one of these was Christopher Columbus, a native of Genoa who sailed to North America from Spain in 1492.

Learn by doing: go out in a sailboat
More about medieval Florence
More about medieval Italy

Bibliography and further reading about medieval Genoa:

High Medieval Italy
Late medieval Italy
Medieval Europe home