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Postcard from Italy

Paying respects to a renewed Genoa

October 29, 2006|Dale M. Brown, | Special to The Times

No, I'm not a taphophile -- someone who loves graveyards and funerals -- but I do admit to enjoying a good cemetery when one comes along: Paris' Pere-Lachaise, where everyone from Georges Bizet to Jim Morrison lies buried, or Moscow's Novodevichy, with its fenced-in plots and Communist-era headstones. But if I were to name a new favorite, it would be Staglieno, in Genoa, Italy.

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A new Genoa

My wife, Liet, and I had intended to spend only a night in the city before heading for the nearby Italian Riviera and the Cinque Terre. After all, wasn't Genoa a nondescript port through which tourists like us passed on their way to somewhere else? But when the desk clerk at our hotel told us that Genoa had scrubbed its face clean of much of the industrial grime that had blackened it, revealing underneath the bright colors of the buildings and the many frescoes that adorn them, we decided to stay longer and have a look around. I'm glad we did.

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Outdoor art

Take Staglieno, for example. It's as much a sculpture garden as it is a cemetery and worth seeing for that reason alone. It is also quintessentially Italian, almost operatic in its flamboyance. Naturally, statues of Christ abound, some ethereal, some realistic, no two faces alike. But we were not prepared for the large number of partially clothed or entirely nude granite and marble female figures reclining languidly on sarcophagi or embracing tombstones. Apparently they were intended as surrogate mourners, but to our eyes, at least, they conveyed life-celebrating sensuality.

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Twain's world

The real reason to come to the old part of Staglieno is its cloister-like arcades. Mark Twain visited in 1868. In his funny travel book "Innocents Abroad," he tells how the corridors are lined on both sides by sarcophagi, adorned with life-size figures of angels and grieving family members, "exquisitely wrought and ... full of grace and beauty." He had never seen anything quite so magnificent before and he waxed poetic, though not without a touch of humor. "They are new and snowy; every outline is perfect, every feature guiltless of mutilation, flaw or blemish." To Twain's untutored eye, the sculptures seemed "a hundredfold more lovely than the damaged and dingy statuary [that has been] saved from the wreck of ancient art and set up in the galleries of Paris for the worship of the world."

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Frozen in time

American photographer Lee Friedlander, who had a one-man show last year at New York's Museum of Modern Art, was so taken by their effect that he devoted a whole monograph to them. I can see why. This is a world frozen in time. Seeing the sculptors' work is like viewing a 19th century fashion show, down to the jewelry and hairstyles of various eras.

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Caterina's claim to fame

Despite the precision with which the artists captured their patrons' likenesses, they have, by now, mostly been forgotten, except for one individual -- Caterina Campodonica, an impoverished hawker of nuts and bread at fairs and feasts. Out of her meager income she managed to save enough money to commission the best of sculptors to set her humble self among Genoa's elite.

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Eternally yours

She stands alone, proud, indomitable, wearing a fringed shawl, a jacket trimmed with crocheted lace, doubtlessly of her own making, and a full skirt, covered partly by her crisply starched apron. In one hand she holds a triple chain of hazelnuts like a rosary and in the other, a twisted ring of bread. The day we paid her our respects someone had inserted fresh red flowers into a bend in the chain. Caterina is indeed remembered.

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Where to stay

The Starhotel President is near the center of town. Doubles from $150; 4 Corte Lambruschini; 011-39-010-5727, www.starhotels.com. Novotel Genoava Ovest is a large modern hotel close to the harbor. Doubles from $112. 8 Via Antonio Cantore; 011-39-010-64841, www.novotel.com.

Where to eat

Tre' Merli Restaurant and Wine Bar is a large and attractive eatery that has startling striped columns and features Genoa's famous focaccia in several tempting variations, one with a soft cheese filling. Meals from $9; 011-39-010-24644. Al Veliero is a cozy, bustling place, with delicious seafood and pesto-sauced pasta. Meals from about $30; 011-39-010-246-5773.

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Getting there

From LAX, Air France, Lufthansa and Delta have connecting flights (change of plane) to Genoa. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $801.

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To learn more

See the Genoa Tourist Board website at www.genovatouristboard.eu, or call 011-39-010-576-791.

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