The original name of Portofino, the old Portus Delphini, is uncertain; there are different suppositions, three are the most probable: that the name has come from the numerous dolphins that have always populated the port and it’s surrounding waters; a second supposition, maybe the less probable, that it would give it’s name to the singular resemblance of the shape of the Peninsula of Saint George, that, seen from the Hill of Mountain Camp, seems to be like a dolphin swimming on the surface of the waters, a last supposition, is probably that the Promontory of Portofino has always been surrounded by luxuriant pine trees, from which comes the name of “Pine Port”. Portofino definately existed during the Roman domination, but it didn’t suffer in any particular way: the Peninsula divided the Genuati from the Tigulli and since Medieval Times Portofino has been an important safe landing place for ships.
A lot of news has been found in the family archives, in the ligurian shipping books, from the genoese “Mercantile” archives and from many history books about Liguria: I would like to quote different editions that I keep in my tiny history archives: 1 – “Saggio storico civile e religioso del Comune di Portofino“, dedicated to Monsignor Salvatore Magnasco, native of Portofino, archbishop of Genoa. Typography: Letture Cattoliche, 1876.
Adelaide, the wife of Lotario king of Italy who after became the wife of Ottone the Great, emperor of the Sacred Roman Empire, donates in the memory of her second husband Ottone, and for the saving of his soul the Village of Portofino to the abbey of Saint Fruttuoso of Capodimonte, ruled in that time by Abbot Medalberto. It was only in 1171 that the people of Portofino were able to free themselves from the control of the Abbot of Saint Fruttuoso and go under Rapallo: from that moment, the strategic importance of Portofino starts to grow, and it’s safe port offers frequent shelter for convoys in transit. The 14th of August 1190, the fleet of Richard the Lion Heart, on its way to the Sacred Land for the Third Crusade, stopped off in the bay. The 25th of April 1241, the 27 gallies that escorted the important prelates to the Lione council threw their anchors in the bay of Portofino. In 1376, the bad sea conditions obbligated Gregory XI, the last french Pope, to find refuge twice at Portofino during his transfer from Marsiglia to Rome.
About 1400, Charles the sixth of France, Genoa’s enemy, sold Portofino to Florence, but Genoa quickly ransomed it from the tuscany city. In 1525, the gallies that were watching over Francis I, king of France, prisoner of Charles I, stopped off at Portofino waiting for the fleet to arrive who were going to escort the famous prisoner to Spain. Up until the beginning of the 19th century it was the french, austrians, english and spanish who took turns in possessing Portofino: then Napoleon appeared. He ordered that marine pine trees were to be planted at the cost of 200. 000 lira in those days! What I would like to write, to leave memories of reality behind, is a modern, economical and architectural story, about what this Village has experienced in the range of a 150 years.
Reading the above books, one deducts that Portofino is placed on the top and in the centre of her natural inlet, which remains geografically speaking between the coast of La Spezia and Genoa: therefore it has for thousands of years been an important position for sea traffic. The inhabitants contact with the outside world, which has different customs to theirs, has given them the possibility to acquire various experiences, especially economical. Houses were built along the shore of the Quay, down to the “carrugi” (alleys) and the Dock, finishing at alley “Carabraghe“. The first were built not only for the convenience of the sea traffic, but also to get the exposure of the sun. Everyone, for independent reasons, or to save money or for their own availability, built their own house one on top of the other, without leaving any space in between, but with independent entrance stairs as can still be seen today: every house is of a different height, when the families needed more space and had more money to spend, they lifted their rooves higher. Up until today they have the same principles.
All this is confirmed comparing the photographs of today with those of a century ago. When I was a 12 year old boy, I remember that I had worked as an apprentice in Gerolamo Viacava’s firm: after some time I noticed whilst I was scraping off the plaster crust inside the houses, that on the lower floors I could see signs of slate rooves built on top of one another, different in shape and quality, as well as the difference between the stones and the mortar.
These stones come from the Zoagli coast, called “Le Ligge”, and they were to be transported by boat. Depending on the quality and the type of baking these bricks had, one could see the different ages of construction. Therefore it is possible to confirm that the architectural characteristics are “spontaneous”, that is, without any type of urban programming or planning: even today, for example, there are clear signs of cisterns in houses. Up until the beginning of the century, not everyone had sanitaryware in their homes, let alone drinking water, that was to be found only in three natural wells: one in front of the Oratory, the other in the so called “Carriage Square“, and another in “New Alley”; the washhouses to do the washing existed only on the “Cannon Beach“, where at one time the ships got there reserves of water, and even today we can find everlasting springwater. When we were children, our mothers, to make us behave whilst they did the washing, told us that a bad man called “wash my clothes!” would arrive and make mum lose more time: like that we didn’t argue and we behaved ourselves. As far as the sanitaryware goes, I remember that the old ones told me that the Quay families threw the excrements in the sea, whilst the alley people had holes dug in the earth near their homes.
I’m telling you all this because, the antique story of the Village, has nothing to do with its birth and origins: when Napoleon was taken to Sant’Elena, “a garrison of people from Portofino, who had gone voluntary to Tolone to help the french troupes” with the fear of being followed, the day of “Saint George’s bonfire“, that is on the 23rd of April every year in honour to the Saint, the door of the Commune was knocked down, at that time situated on the second floor of the actual Marconi Quay above bar “La Gritta”, and all the documents that existed in the Town Hall were burnt in the bonfire: for this reason, every trace was lost together with the story of Portofino. Mr Davegno, a lawyer of Portofino functioning as the mayor, picked up from the street a few papers, and, together with the stories of his ancestors, the “written story” of Portofino began, in the book “Le memorie di Davegno”.
Here is what Davegno wrote to “Maire” (Mayor) at Chiavari about the events of that day, the 24th of April 1814, the day after “Saint George’s bonfire”: “I must tell you, gentlemen, with extreme regret of the strange event that happened last night during the celebration to soleminze Saint Geoge’s which happens every year. Some sailors who had deserted the Tolone army made up a kind of troupe which was joined up by a group of boys and other people that to my knowledge were the two well known, that is Giuseppe Luigi Guarello q. m. Giuseppe, and Giuseppe Merello son of the late Emanuele. They were taken to the ex-mayor insulting him and asking him for the lists, or rather registers that he had ready for the fire. They made some resistence, but they were obligated to hide themselves to avoid being knocked down, they took as many registers and papers they could find. After this operation that took nearly an hour, they came towards my house where I had caught on to their intentions locking my door to their insults. They were stopped half way up the stairs by my secretary who asked them what they were doing: they replied that they wanted the deserters register to burn it, like they had done down in the other communes.
The secretary had been told that at the Maire they didn’t keep any deserters registers, and the papers and books that were preserved in Maire must not be burnt because the majority belong to the book keeping of the same Commune, and others must be kept in order to remember for posterity, and anyway the new Government and the intentions of S. E. The Commander General of the British Army insists that “Maire” (the Municipality) are respected. At that point they didn’t ask any more questions. Leaving they went to the houses of the Custom Receiver, the united rights, etc, to try and get their registers all destinated to the same thing. I felt relieved but I didn’t dare go out as it was late, 8′ o’ clock in the evening, and I didn’t want to expose myself to other acts of violence from an angry crowd. Trying not to think about the two any more I was suddenly told that the Maire, situated a long way from my house, had been robbed of everything that could be found: one of my nephews went to see if he could repair the mess, but he found not only that the papers had been stolen, but also the book shelves, the writing desk, all thrown in the fire which had been previously lighted. (Thanks to Giovanni Carbone).
Portofino, a World apart.