A Historic Italian Port Rediscovers A Sense of Unity With the Sea

1492/1992. PORTRAITS of a NEW WORLD SYMBOL

LIKE Spain and the United States, Italy is preparing to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's famous voyage.

"Genoa will be one of the most important focal points" of Italian tourism this year, says a spokesman for the Italian State Tourist Board.

The believed birthplace of the explorer will play host to an international exhibition, "Christopher Columbus: Ships and the Sea," from May 15 to Aug. 15.

About 50 international exhibits at Genoa will highlight the historical evolution of ships and navigation, modern developments, and the future of marine sciences and technologies.

Renzo Piano, a Genoa native and the designer of the modern Georges Pompidou cultural center in Paris, has been commissioned for part of the Genoa project.

Although the city is Italy's largest port, Mr. Piano says townspeople have cut themselves off from the sea. He says he hopes to restore access to the waterfront and thus a sense of unity between sea and city.

The architect's activities are part of a larger urban-renewal project for the Ligurian city, which will bring badly needed modernization to the port, including new terminals for cruise ships and ferries, and a huge exhibition and tourist center. The work is expected to be finished later this decade.

Meanwhile, northern Italy is also preparing other celebrations related to the Renaissance.

This year is also the 500th anniversary of the deaths of Florentine ruler Lorenzo de' Medici and painter Piero della Francesca (the artist who brought perspective to paintings). In commemorating these figures, Italians hope to remind the world of the spirit of inquiry and freedom of thought that made Columbus's explorations possible.

But not everyone in Genoa is happy. Some public and private officials there say Europeans really are not interested in their exhibition.

They even fret that a trend toward less- flattering portrayals of Columbus in the United States (decrying his "colonialist" role) could keep Americans away, too.

Worse still, the Genoese say, the Spanish, who 500 years ago financed Columbus's attempt to reach India, have stolen Italy's thunder with their much larger 1992 Seville Expo.

Don't believe it, says a National Tourist Board spokesman: "Italians are masters of trying to make arguments and polemics about everything."

The real lament in Genoa, he says, is not that people will not come, but that they will only come for a day or two.

"That's what they're complaining about, " he says.

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