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G - 49 : Genoa's Denial of Access Strategy

Updated: May 31, 2023

Sanremo's Yacht Harbor from the Genovese Fortress

Cannot believe that in less than 50 days we embark on our journey along the Ligurian coast and the Côte d'Azur. Time to write more about the history of this shore. We set sail on the Manatea and leave from Savona, once a rival to Genoa, the maritime super power.

Over the centuries, both Genoa and Venice acquired significant territories in Italy even though both were maritime powers. Overseas, they restricted themselves to harbor towns they needed for shelter and trade. In Italy they followed different strategies. The Republic of Venice acquired land to diversify its revenues and taxes. It got the lower Po Valley and controlled a large territory called Terraferma bordering the Duchy of Milan, the Apennine and the Alps. Few people know that Bergamo was once a Venetian town.

By 1499, Venice was the most powerful State in Northern Italy

Always wondered why Genoa acquired Liguria and did not expand towards Savoy. But I asked the wrong question. Having read a lot about Genovese history, I noticed a pattern. Genoa did not look for land or revenue, it wanted better security. It offered a defensive alliances to its neighbouring ports and offered help in case they were attacked. In return, the Genovese Republic demanded the town's galleys to sail with its fleet. Noli is a good example. Its defence agreement with Genoa dates back to the crusades and was regularly renewed. Noli remained independent until the end of the Genovese Republic in 1797.

Liguria in the 17th century was either allied with Genoa or under its full control (map 1640)

If a town resisted Genoa’s "generous" offer, military means were used and the port be-sieged. Once conquered, its harbour was filled-in and a fortress built. Commercial considerations always came second. Genoa had to deny these ports to potential enemies. Contrary to the Serenissima Republic which was save in its Lagoon, difficult to attack and never militarily conquered, Genoa's harbour was accessible from the sea . Venice could be made safe by pulling a few navigational markers from the lagoon and block the chocking points with gun fortresses. Genoa did not have this luxury.

Genovese territory in 1499 - 17 = County of Monaco; 22 = Principality of Oneglia; 13 = Lordship of Loano; 9 Margraviate de Finale; 20 = Republic of Noli; 32 = Lordship of Savona

At the age of galleys which moved at 30 miles a day and needed shelter every night, it aimed to control harbours within three days of sailing distance. To the east Genovese Liguria thus extends to Porto Venere and in the West to Monaco. It also controlled Corsica to prevent the island from being used as a base for naval attacks. Genoa’s rule did never extend far into Liguria’s mountains. Most of the time, it confirmed the privileges of the ruling local nobles and coopted them into its society. The Genovese governors in these places were often appointed by the locals. Their appointment simply ratified by Genoa. The mountainous areas were poor anyway. There was not much tax income to be gained.

The Genovese Fortezza di Priamar in Savona was built over the old town of Savona

This Denial of Access strategy worked well for Genoa throughout the age of galleys. It was tested by the Turkish Admiral Barbarossa in 1544 when he tried to liberate his buddy Turgut Reis. But Barbarossa could not conduct a protracted siege. He had no port and his galleys could not stay for too long blocking Genoa. He had to offer a large ransom payment for Turgut who was eventually released for 3'500 gold ducats.

The Genovese Fortress Castelfranco in Finale Ligure is not easy to find

The remainders of this strategy are still visible. The towns on Liguria’s coast are all fortified like the village of Ventimiglia which now is at the border of France. Until 1860, the Duchy of Nice was part of Italy and Nice was Liguria's border town.

The fortified Genovese Town of Ventimiglia

The important and larger ports were not only fortified. A powerful Renaissance fortress with a large batterie prevented any adversary of Genoa to use the harbour. Sometimes It takes a trained eye to find them but once you think like an artillery man from the 17th century, you spot them. Google Earth also helps – just type in Fortezza Finale Ligure and you will see.

Forte di Santa Tecla "guarding" San Remo's Port

But technology always progresses and changes everything. By the 17th century, the arrival of a new generation of sailing ships challenged Genoa's Denial of Access policy. Men of War, large sail ships with several gun decks and 70 plus cannons, were introduced to service in the Dutch, English and French navy. They could stay at sea for 3 months, easily ride out a storm and did not need a string of ports like the fragile galleys. Genoa’s moment of truth came in 1684, when a French fleet from Toulon anchored outside the port and bombarded the town with 13’000 shots. The iron cannon balls did not do much damage, but the French fleet had mortar ships which fired explosive grenades and set the town on fire. Two days of bombardment did a lot of damage. A year later, the Genovese Doge “pilgrimed” to Versailles to "reconcile" with Louis XIV – Genoa became de facto a French ally.

Men of War, the mighty Sail Ships dominated in 1684 albeit there were still a few Galleys

Needless to say that during the Napoleonic Wars and World War II the strategy of access denial was all but obsolete. The British Fleet blockaded Genoa with impunity in 1800. The Royal Navy and the Royal Airforce bombard it unhindered in 1941.

French Mortar ships firing explosive mortars into Genoa in 1684 - the landing though failed

The Genovese castles on the Ligurian coast now became obsolete and were used as hospitals or prisons. Two centuries later, the summer tourists who holidayed on Liguria's beaches took an interest in these castles. They got refurbished and serve now as concert and theatre venues. And for photo opps. It is an irony of history that the forts once built to deny access are now used to attract visitors. History meanders in unexpected ways.

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