History & Legends

Portofino, a World apart
March 2016

Historical Personages


Many personages in passing through Portofino or anchoring in its port have left memorable recollections behind them: Konrad of Swabia (see Caffaro), Richard, king of En-gland, Odeardo, duke of Parma, Ferdinand, king of Spain, Pope Adrian the VI, Andrea Doria, and Francis I, king of France. Francis I, retreating towards Spain after his defeat at Pavia, was handed over to Andrea Doria who held him prisoner for some days in the tower —still existing today — of the Monastery of Cervara (see F. Accinelli). Not to be forgotten is the time when the ships of Pope Gregory the XI took shelter in the port. In October 1377 the pope, escorted by thirty one ships, sailed from the port of Marseille on his return to Rome from Avignon. (Holy See from 1309 to 1377). On the 28th he reached Genoa and stayed there for the celebration of Saint Simon and Jude’s day. That same night he put out to sea as the weather seemed favourable for navigation and all conditions made a happy voyage hopeful when suddenly a violent storm came up: the rain, hail and lightning filled the voyagers with dismay and many feared for their lives, but at dawn they found themselves near Portofino and took shelter in the port. The following day, Thursday, the pope, his retinue and crew took a rest; on the eve of All Saints’ Day, the 31st, they again put out to sea and had already gone twenty miles when another storm came up forcing them to return to Portofino. Perhaps then Pope Gregory understood that it was God’s will that he remain there to celebrate All Saints’ Day. He set out on foot for the nearby Cervara Monastery, which had been chosen for the solemn occasion, and there celebrated high mass before the altar of Saint Jerome. There is a plaque set in the wall of the Saint Martin parish church in commemoration of this occasion.

During the war of 1746 in order to drive out the Austrians from Genoa, French and Spanish troops were disembarked at Portofino and were soon followed by provisions and ammunition so that the villagers had to give them not only the oratory but also the parish church itself. At this time Portofino was fortified, visited by the duke of Richelieu and protected by a French fleet (Gius. Mecatti: Guerre di Genova). In this struggle against the Austrians and Sardinians it became a real war arsenal of the Genoese At the beginning of the XIX century thefortress of Portofino, in the hands of the French, strongly resisted the attack of the English who finally succeeded in taking possession of it. However, after the defeat of the English allies at the Battle of Marengo they were obliged to abandon the fortress and in so doing disarmed it. Napoleon I had it rearmed but he was defeated by the allied forces and in March 1814 an English ship approached Portofino. Upon reaching the fort the English opened fire with a few cannon shots and then sent out many boats in order to drive out the French. The French responded to this action with the cannons of the fortess and those of the castle at Paraggi, along with well marked musket fire of men hidden among the rocks and the English were compelled to retreat. The following night the French had orders to withdraw from the fortress and in the morning the English entered Portofino and hoisted the Genoese flag on the castle in name of the same government. But Napoleon I was declared the absolute victor of Cisalpine 1 Italy so Portofino returned in possession of the French. In 1849, during the Italian Risorgimento, many steamships sent by the republicans and followers of Mazzini to embark the legions of the Lombardy volunteers anchored in the port of Portofino. In the same year the legion of Luciano Manara stopped here for many days on their way to defend Rome which had been declared a republic and was beseiged by the French.


In Rome, Manara and his entire legion died fighting for their cause. But in 1815, when the Genoese Republic came under the control of the Sardinian – Piedmontese Empire, the castle at Portofino began to lose importance as a fortified position and once abandoned it started to go ruin. Today, the castle would still be in ruins if it had not been purchased towards 1880 by private persons who saw to its restoration and changed it into a private residence. Thus Portofino started towards a tranquil way of life and relying only on its panoramic beauty gradually became a tourist mecca. The first tourists to frequent Portofino were the English who, as already mentioned, started to come towards 1880. The Brown family bought the castle and had it restored by the famous architect, Alfredo D’Andrade. The Browns lived there for almost thirty years and made a magnificent residence of it with collections of precious china, arms and antique furniture. In the meantime English families purchased other parts of Portofino where they had large and small villas erected. On the ridge of the mount the Carnarvon family built Villa Altachiara which from one side looks onto the port, while from the other there is a sheer drop off into the vastness of the sea beneath. This family and especially the famous egypto-logist, who discovered the tomb of Tutankamen, also bought the greater part of the peninsula and here built several villas: they also restored the small castle situated on the summit of the peninsula.

The Bond family too, made part of this English colony and built two villas on the peninsula. One of these is Villa Olivetta, erected on the walls of an ancient signal tower. The beautiful castle of Saint George is also the work of an English gentleman who had it enlarged from a house which at one time existed on the isthmus. At the beginning of the XX century this castle was purchased by Baron Von Mumm (coming from the German family, makers of the champagne bearing the same name} and the baron and baroness made it their fixed abode. In July 1914, a month before World I broke out, the German emperor, William II, came to Portofino in his yacht and remained for two days as guest of the baron who was also his friend, having been German ambassador in the Far East for many years. Baron Von Mumm died at Portofino and is buried in the small protestant cemetery there. The baroness outlived her husband and being of an intelligent and provident nature was much loved by the village inhabitants. She lived in the castle during the harshest years of World War II, and saved Portofino from the total destruction projected by the German troops before their withdrawal at the end of the war. From September 1943 until April 1945, Portofino, and above all the peninsula, was the centre of German troops who armed it with anti – aircraft and machine guns thus provoking air bombardments, destruction and a great loss of life among innocent citizens. Thanks to Salvator Gotta.

Portofino, a World apart.