Digest>Archives> November 2009

The Lighthouses of Genoa

By Annamaria “Lilla” Mariotti


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The current Genoa Lighthouse, known as “The ...
Photo by: Annamaria “Lilla” Mariotti

The Lighthouse of Genoa, referred to locally as “The Lantern,” is the symbol of the City of Genoa and is the oldest lighthouse still operating in Italy. It is located at the entrance of the Harbor of Genoa, on the Ligurian Sea, in the North of Italy.

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First known image of the first lighthouse in ...

The story of this lighthouse dates back to 1128 when a tower was built on a rock called Capo Faro (Lighthouse Cape) at the entrance of the harbor of the town. The light was provided by a fire on the top of the beacon which was fueled by dry stems of heather (brugo) and broom (brisca) constantly added to its top. The lighthouse provided a signal the port entrance for the vessels that came from all over the known world at that time with their precious cargos. Genoa at that time was already a very important and busy harbor. The keeping of the light was entrusted to the inhabitants of the west side of the town and a great attention was paid to the care and maintenance of the tower. Ancient documents report that and every vessel entering the port had to pay a duty “pro igne facendo in capite fari,” which means "to keep the light on.”

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Angelo DeCaro is the head keeper at the Genoa ...
Photo by: Annamaria “Lilla” Mariotti

It is quite easy to reconstruct the history of the lighthouse because a succession of maritime authorities have been responsible for the maintenance of the Lantern over the centuries and their records have been well preserved.

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Roberto Racalbuto the assistant keeper of the ...
Photo by: Annamaria “Lilla” Mariotti

In 1316 the tower was officially classified as a lighthouse. In 1318 it was caught in a war between the Guelph, who sheltered themselves inside the tower, and the Ghibelline, who, trying to get their enemies out, damaged the foundations which were not repaired until 1321.

As recorded by the Genoese historian Giustiniani in 1326, the lighthouse was fueled with olive oil and the first glass was installed to protect the light of the fire.

The first known image of the Lantern is a drawing depicted by an unknown hand on the cover of a book owing to the “Salvatori del Porto” (Saviors of the Port) that was used to record the expenses for the lighting of the lighthouse and the appointment of its keepers.

In the 1400s the lighthouse was also used as a prison. For ten years, Jacopo Lusignani and his wife, Eloise, were held there as hostages by the King of Cyprus. It was here that Eloise, who in a dark, small and damp room, gave birth to her son Giano. The boy grew up in the tower and for his early years he lived literally between the sea and the sky.

In 1405, for a short period, the keepers were monks, who installed toward the top of lighthouse Christian symbols of a cross and a fish. In 1413, a decree issued by the “Consoli del Mare” (Sea Consuls) allocated a sum of “36 lire” for the management of the lighthouse. This decree also fixed a penalty for those who would fail to not properly carry out their duties. For the cleaning of the glass the keepers (called “turrexani”) received rags and sponges. They also used the whites of eggs.

In 1449 one of the keepers was Antonio Colombo, uncle of Christopher Columbus, who, for a three month salary, received “21 lire genovine” (Genoese liras).

The Lantern was struck by lightning twice, in 1481 and in 1602, until a lightning-rod was installed in 1711.

In 1507 Genoa was invaded by Louis XII of France who ordered the construction of a fort, called “Biglia” at the bottom of the lighthouse. Five years later the fort was besieged by Admiral Andrea Doria and during the battle the tower was cut in half by a cannon fire.

In 1543 a new lighthouse was

built on the ruins of the old tower by commission of Doge Andrea Centurione and financed by the Bank of San Giorgio. The tower assumed the form that we see today and was topped

by a new lantern. Legend is that the architect, Gian Maria Olgiati, was thrown off the top of lighthouse so that he could never build another similar structure. During the centuries the building was reinforced with tie-rods and bolts and its foundations were reinforced.

In 1843 a Fresnel lens was installed and in 1898 the lighting power was increased by the introduction of acetylene gas, extending the range beam of the lens to 15 miles. The acetylene was replaced in 1904 by pressurized kerosene, until the beacon was electrified in 1936. In the following years the old hand-wound system was replaced by an electrical motor and the mercury bath revolving mechanism was replaced with another on ball bearings.

Today the old, majestic lady stands in the middle of the harbor of Genoa, 77 meters high - 177 on the sea level - and offers an majestic view over Genoa and the Ligurian Riviera. Every night the range of its beam can now be seen for 26 miles out to sea.

Its lighthouse keeper is Angelo De Caro, a gentle, low speaking man who has been taking care of the Lantern for over 20 years. He now has an assistant keeper, Roberto Racalbuto, a former keeper of the Portofino Lighthouse, which is now automated and was recently de-staffed. Both men climb the 365 stairs every day to reach the lantern room and clean the lens as did the “turrexani” centuries ago.

This story appeared in the November 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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