The Fate of Italy’s Trump-Like Savior Hangs on Cities Like This

The once-thriving port of Genoa now is a cauldron of discontent as locals feel cut off from wealthier parts of northern Italy.

With its historic center of opulent palaces juxtaposed against a waterfront of industrial relics, Genoa has long been fertile ground for a political fight.

The Italian port where Christopher Columbus hailed from is also the home city of comic-turned-politician Beppe Grillo, who is spearheading an assault against the globalized world the explorer helped to forge. 

Residential buildings line the port in Genoa

Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

With its faded mercantile past and present economic woes, Genoa is the kind of place that helps explain why Grillo’s Five Star Movement, which wants faster expulsions of illegal immigrants and a vote on Italy’s euro membership, is neck and neck with the governing Democratic Party in opinion polls. Grillo, along with former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and other leaders, is pushing for an early election. Five Star’s aim is to upend Italy in a way Donald Trump has America.

“Who else should we trust? We’ve tried everyone else,” Brunella Orlandini, 56, who with her husband plans to vote for Five Star for the first time, said in a café opposite Genoa’s city hall. “Five Star are new, the least corrupt at least for now. They have energy, they get us involved and they listen to us.”

With mayoral elections due in almost 1,000 Italian cities and towns by mid-June, Five Star aims to build on wins in Rome and Turin last year. As the party aims to grab power in Italy, Genoa would be one of the biggest prizes, not least because it’s traditionally a force for radical change in the country.

A former independent city state, Genoa has long challenged the established order with explorers, mercenaries and revolutionaries over the centuries. Its vast navy once patrolled a realm that stretched into the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea and North Africa. That history is long gone.

“Genoa has run out of patience,” said Nicholas Walton, the author of a history of the city called “Genoa: La Superba.” “People feel abandoned because they haven’t shared in the wealth of the rest of northern Italy. They see the Milanese buying the grand villas on the coast which they can’t afford.”

Genoa is no stranger to setting the national trend. The city has produced a number of popes, patriot Giuseppe Mazzini and notable personalities such as architect Renzo Piano and poet Eugenio Montale, who won the Nobel Prize for literature.

For Alice Salvatore, a former English schoolteacher who is a Five Star regional councilor, the anti-globalization protests and subsequent riots at the Group of Eight summit hosted by Genoa in 2001 were her political awakening.

“More than in many other Italian cities, people here organize themselves at grassroots level,” said Salvatore, 34. “The stereotype Genoese are moaners, but the positive side of this is that they try to resolve things.”


Alice Salvatore, Genoa's regional council member for the Five Star Movement

Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

Driving down the seafront in Genoa, Salvatore fumes against the city’s rulers past and present. Plans to reopen a disused coal-fired power station threaten nearby homes; a raised expressway cutting through Sampierdarena, the old shipbuilding district, has helped make it “a ghetto” for immigrants, she says.

Salvatore, who won almost a third of the Genoa vote in the 2015 regional elections, wants jobs created through better use of European Union funds and tax incentives for small entrepreneurs. She also wants tighter controls on how public money is spent on centers housing migrants.

Grillo grew up in the San Fruttuoso neighborhood of Genoa near the port, working at his father’s firm making acetylene torches, and as a sales representative for a jeans manufacturer before joining the comedy circuit. He grew into Five Star’s most high-profile figure, denouncing political corruption, condemning globalization and urging direct democracy via the internet.

Opponents say it’s easy to complain when you haven’t been in power. Genoa is just another example of discontent across the country rather than an illustration of Five Star’s grip on the city, according to Mayor Marco Doria.

“Five Star is like Donald Trump because they both attack the establishment and they think we’re better off on our own,” said Doria, a leftist who is a marquis by birth, though he doesn’t use the title. “But blaming the euro and migrants and globalization for Genoa’s problems is absurd; the truth is that Italy has been suffering an economic crisis since 2007.”

Marco Doria, mayor of Genoa

Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

Unemployment in Italy remained at an 18-month high of 12 percent in December, according to a report on Jan. 31. The jobless rate for youths exceeded 40 percent. In Genoa province, the rate was roughly in line with the national average.

The city has lost more than a third of its population since the early 1970s, and the Genoese remaining might be a receptive audience for Five Star.

“Genoa has always been bloody-minded,” said Walton, the author. “People often had to make a life for themselves at sea so it’s got a resourceful, obstinate and quite brutal way of looking at opportunities and power.”

--With assistance from Giovanni Salzano in Rome