History & Legends

Portofino, a World apart
October 2017

The Parish Church of Portofino


According to a French historian, the first sign of church foundation at Portofino goes back to 160 d. c. It was built near the Olivetta hill on the Peninsula: after centuries, it was written in some works that, the population developed continuously reaching more than three thousand inhabitants. A new church was, therefore, necessary to hold all these parishioners and, in 986 the first foundations were put down which are those of the present parish church called “San Martino vescovo” (Saint Martin bishop): the natives of Portofino were skillful sailors, participating with the Genoese in the East Crusades, and testifying their devotion to San Giorgio before having a temple where to put the Saint’s relics.

In 1154 the natives of Portofino wanted to build the temple on the isthmus so it would be protected from the atmospheric conditions and from the pestilence: they declared San Giorgiopatron Saint of Portofino, whilst the abbots of San Fruttuoso called the temple or, Saint George’s church or, Saint Martin’s church. The consecration of the Church was in 1548. As centuries went by Portofino’s churches multiplied: chapels rose in San Sebastiano, in Paraggi, in San Gottardo, then the Nostra Signora Assunta oratory was built which became a confraternity, the Madonna of Vitrale, the Madonna of Sabaino, the Madonna of Capo and others that have been lost in the past.

A second consecration of the Churches was in1885 by Monsignor Salvatore Magnasco, native of Portofino and Archbishop of Genoa: he remained 20 years in that holy see, leaving a wonderful personal impression, pointed out recently by Cardinal Giuseppe Siri during a mission to Portofino. It can be deduced from many books, that Portofino’s Church depended on the San Fruttuoso’s abbey, but with the Council decree of 24th January 1885, the Churches of Portofino, Nozarego and San Giacomo of Corte were taken away from the Abbey’s jurisdiction and given to the Archbishopric of Genoa. On the 3rd December 1892, the above-mentioned churches were assigned to the Curia of Chiavari and, therefore, under Fortunato Vinelli’s control, who was the city’s new bishop, a native of Chiavari. Subsequently, they were acknowledged by the Italian Government.

The highest prelates, kings, emperors, governors, and noble people, in general, stopped off alternately at Portofino’s church, which had gained importance through the centuries, taking into consideration the port and also the Cervara convent where the Bianchi Benedettini friars had settled. Many priests have managed Portofino’s church, starting from 1282 to 2003: in all 53, subdivided into ministers, rectors, and archpriests taking turns among themselves, there were also various natives of Portofino.

Beginning with Facino Vassallo (1300-1330), Paolo Adorno (1364-1376), Guglielmo (1390- 1396), Giovanni Prato (1422-1449), Clemente Davvero (1450-1474), Bartolomeo Vassallo (1520-1528) and Saverio Francesco Marchese (1798-1801). Two religious people who have been distinguished for importance are Don Matteo Marchese, zealous country missionary, elected priest of Camogli and imprisoned by the Republicans in 1797 because he defended the law, and, Cardinal Salvatore Magnasco, archbishop of Genoa, who spent a long period of time at the Vatican to prepare the Council of 1885.


These two characters are represented in the frescoes of the high left aisle entering our Church: considering the number of priests, one could estimate that Portofino has had more than one hundred, including numerous nuns. Portofino celebrates different saint’s days: on the 24th of April we have the Procession of San Giorgio, the 20th of January that of San Sebastiano on the Mount where his church is situated, the 15th of August the Assumption Day on the Village’s Oratory. The most felt and important celebration for the population is the “Festa of San Giorgio” that begins at 9 pm on the 23rd of April: in honor of the Saint a big bonfire is lit in the center of the Square near the waterside.

The meaning of this bonfire is very important for the inhabitants of Portofino and the nearby communes, who arrive in great numbers, gathering around the fire waiting for the last piece of wood to burn: a season of good work depends on how the “penola” falls, that is the central pole of the pile of wood: if it falls towards the sea the next summer season will bring certain well-being to the Village.

When the fire burns out, everyone celebrates all night, singing songs in genoese dialect whilst playing guitars, accompanied by a grilled fish supper and local white wine. The celebrations continue the day after with the Procession of the Saint’s Relics along the port Quay up to the Sanctuary: here is the blessing of the Village and when we return to the Church, the fire-work display begins, which is a pagan custom. The natives of Portofino are very attached to these moments, because they feel nearer to their Saint more than anyone else, as though he was ((only” theirs.

As the centuries went by, Portofino gave to the church an outstanding economic contribution to support the Christian cult: moreover, it reconstructed Saint George’s Church, which had been completely destroyed from the last war’s bombs, embellishing it with artistic works. As one can read in their history books, the population has always been generous when managing public interests, and the natives of Portofino have always been conscientious and diligent with their national and international sea trade and commerce.

They’ve known the hard lives of the sailors who sailed the world and, therefore their leading figures, in the past, have always helped their neighbors, especially poor families. You can read in the 15° chapter, on THE ADMINISTRATION, that in 1810 some well-off natives of Portofino established the commonly called “charitable work” exactly for this noble reason. Along the “length of time”, Portofino verified a complete economic change towards tourism that, underlined more than once, brought well-being to the inhabitants of the Village who have immensely appreciated this industrious event, studying to create shops and places, now known all over the world, and obtaining a high position in the commercial sea and tourist trade.

Others have been distinguished in medicine and surgery, in music, belonging to famous national and international orchestras, as opera singers, painters, artists, and excellent cookery teachers, and others as capable administrators of their own businesses: in short, they are all real artists in their own field. In memory of Giovanni Carbone.

Portofino, What Else? 🐬