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Summer Previews : Double Exposure : Two European Cities Hope Their Extravagant Summer Expositions Will Draw Tourists from the New World and Old, and Revitalize Their Once-Proud Economies

February 16, 1992|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Montalbano is Rome correspondent for The Times

GENOA, Italy — Straggling improbably across a series of hills hard by the busy Tyrrhenian Sea, this is a city that sends out conflicting signals--and justifies them both.

It's a bit old-fashioned, to be sure, as the name of its oldest daily newspaper--Secolo XIX (19th Century)--suggests. But it's haughty, too, as its nickname in Italian-- La Superba --implies. It's earthy in equal measure. Superb.

This is a big year for Genoa. History is being called upon to repair the ravages of time in the name of a brighter tomorrow.

Columbus was born here. Not big news perhaps, but the inspiration of a big-deal, summer-long international exposition called "Christopher Columbus: Ships and the Sea." The celebration is calculated to bring new life and new fans to a port of 800,000 souls that was once an audacious maritime city-state and now is just another big port. Even counting transients on the way to the nearby Italian Riviera, Genoa sees only about a third as many visitors each year as Turin or Milan, neither of which rank high as Italy's tourist Meccas.

Smaller, more picturesque and more restful towns such as Portofino and its seaside brethren are also bigger tourist draws. For many Americans, Genoa is often no more than an autostrada drive-by on the way to or from France.

A shame, because like the quayside exhibition to honor the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage west, Genoa's failure to match the lure of other big Italian cities is part of its appeal. It is a city with a distinctive flavor all its own.

There is industrial and cultural wealth of the sort you'd expect of a city that produced seven Popes, two Nobel Prize winners, invented banking, denim and, yes, the Genoa jib. "There may be a prettier woman in Europe, but I doubt it," observed Mark Twain, innocently abroad in 1869.

The civic focus this summer, though, is not on the winsome but on the ugly: the derelict waterfront disjoined from the Old Town by an eyesore elevated highway. For years, Genoa has wondered what to do with its old port.

"We'd like to make it a new center for a city which has grown up and down hills facing the sea. Many people have left the Old Town. We'd like to draw them back," said Odoardo Scaletti, a spokesman for the Columbus exhibition.

"The Columbus anniversary was an excuse to rethink the city's future," he said. "We hope to draw people into the area not only for the exhibition, but for good, especially at night. When the exhibitors leave, it is expected that Genoa's newspapers and other businesses that work at night may move into the space."

With handsome financing from the Italian goverment, a 15-acre waterfront site at the old port has been overhauled for exhibitions from 50 nations that organizers optimistically say will draw 4 million visitors during its 90-day run from May 15 to Aug. 15.

Virtually every country in Europe and the Americas will host an exhibit. The Japanese are mounting theirs on a ferry boat. Egypt is sending former King Farouk's royal yacht.

Star of the show will be a big U.S.-designed, state-of-the-art aquarium at water's edge. Boat-shaped, two football fields long and ingeniously arranged to exhibit creatures from a variety of seas, Europe's biggest aquarium, conceived by Cambridge Seven Associates of Boston, should draw visitors to Genoa for decades to come.

Some of the exhibiting nations, including Italy, will moor displays under stylized boat derricks rising from the water as a signature of the show. Designed by architect Renzo Piano, a native son whose works include Japan's Osaka airport and Paris' Pompidou art museum, one of the derricks will hoist visitors high above the port in a glass-sided elevator. A new convention center and a dockside, under-canvas theater will also be inaugurated this summer.

Most exhibitions will be housed in historic warehouses of coffee, cotton and spices, restored and air-conditioned for the occasion. Among them, a U.S. exhibition will focus on the Chesapeake Bay region to illustrate the history of America's waterways in the context of historic, cultural, economic and environmental issues. The topic is well-suited to flatter Genoa: Baltimore, at the head of the Chesapeake, is Genoa's brother port and American sister city.

"The dock-front of Genoa is marvelous. Such heat and colors and dirt & noise and loud wicked alleys with all the washing of the world hanging from the high windows," wrote Dylan Thomas in a 1947 letter to his parents.

Today, Genoa's apparently aimless Old Town alleys, the carugi , are still as loud and wicked as they were when Dylan Thomas visited. I always get the impression that this is how Italy's ancient cities tasted before the tourists came. The context is Italian, to be sure, but there is also the unmistakable tang and mystery of a Middle Eastern bazaar.

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