Republic of Genoa

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Republic of Genoa

Type of Government

The Republic of Genoa was a city-state based in Liguria, the Mediterranean coastal region of northwest Italy near France. Like Venice, its chief rival in the region, Genoa attained immense wealth and power from its maritime economy and forged a political system dominated by an elite group of old families determined to maintain it as an independent republic. The nobles decided who among them would become podestà, a municipal executive that was later replaced by the position of doge, or duke.


Genoa was settled around 2000 BC by seafaring Greeks, who found that it possessed an excellent natural harbor on the Mediterranean Sea. Later occupied by Roman forces, Ostrogoths, and the Lombards, Genoa went on to become part of Charlemagne’s (742–814) empire and then a possession of the Holy Roman Empire. By 1000 it had grown into a thriving maritime power dominated by the aristocratic families whose base had been the lands of the surrounding countryside; eager to participate in Genoa’s commerce, the nobles moved to control the city as well.

Government Structure

Genoa’s first independent form of self-government came into existence in 1099 as the Comune. This was an alliance of merchants and nobles that consisted of eight compagnies (formal orders) headed by nobles. The units possessed their own fleets, weaponry, wharves, and clearly defined districts of the city that extended up from their location on the harbor. Tensions occasionally flared, and armed battles erupted in the city streets. After 1190 a body of thirty cittadini nobili (urban nobles) began to select the podestà (unofficial mayor).

In the early 1300s a new system of laws for the city and its surrounding coastal properties was instituted, which resulted in the 1339 election for the first doge of Genoa, Simon Boccanegra (d. 1636?). Even though the doge ruled for life, his executive power was limited and shared by the Anziani (council of twelve elders), whose members served four-month terms. Their election process is unknown, but they were probably chosen by an electoral commission, which in turn had been elected by a group of citizens summoned to meet at the government building on a certain day but not given any reason until they arrived. The seats for the Anziani were evenly divided between the nobles and the merchant-artisan class.

Other committees and councils in Genoa had a more permanent nature and carried out various government functions, such as the Officio della Moneta, which was responsible for communal finances, and the Officio della Romania, which dealt with trade and the colonies that Genoa’s far-reaching maritime empire now included. Important decisions were made by special temporary councils consisting of between one hundred and two hundred Genoese men; these were sometimes referred to as great councils.

At the start of the fifteenth century another institution came to dominate Genoese politics: the Casa di San Giorgio. Formed in 1407 as a way to consolidate the revenues collected from farm properties, it eventually came to control much of the city-state’s government, though it remained entirely separate from the government and even operated as a bank for a time. All tax revenues went through the San Giorgio, and the Comune government was sometimes forced to borrow from it to meet shortfalls. In 1528 Andrea Doria (1466–1560), a noble from one of Genoa’s oldest families, was elected doge. From this point until 1797, Genoa became an oligarchic city-state, a republic firmly controlled by a handful of aristocratic families.

Political Parties and Factions

Among the aristocratic families that dominated Genoese politics for eight hundred years were the Doria, Fieschi, Spinola, and Grimaldi clans. Rivalries between them became so heated that at one point the Grimaldis fled into exile and founded their own royal house at the nearby Rock of Monaco. The Nuccio, Adorno, and Campofregoso families dominated the Genoese politics as doges.

Major Events

Important dates in Genoese political history include 958, when the joint rulers of the ancient kingdom of Italy—soon to be folded into the Holy Roman Empire—formally recognized the Republic of Genoa as an independent entity. Following Genoese participation in the First Crusade (1096–1099), it was granted significant trade privileges in the Mediterranean and began establishing colonies in the eastern region. Genoa’s power began to decline in 1380, when it was defeated by the Venetian navy in the battle of Chioggia. After 1499 it was occupied by France, which then lost its hegemony (dominance over other nations) to the Spanish Empire in the 1520s.


Genoa was succeeded by the short-lived Republic of Liguria, then changed hands several times before being absorbed into the united Kingdom of Italy in the nineteenth century.

Carden, Robert W. The City of Genoa. New York: James Pott, 1908.

Epstein, Steven A. Genoa and the Genoese, 958–1528. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996.

Kirk, Thomas A. Genoa and the Sea: Policy and Power in an Early Modern Maritime Republic, 1559–1684. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.