SARONNO, Italy - Ask any Genovese and they will tell you that the Genoa’s Via Garibaldi is one of the most beautiful streets in the world. And they may be right. It is a street lined with elegant palaces, one more beautiful than the other, but the Via Garibaldi has a checked past. Back when it was still called Via Montalbano it was home to a number of public brothels which were as famous and infamous as any found in Pompeii.
|No Rough Stuff Allowed|
Genoa at the time was a commanding Maritime Republic, a city that was as prosperous as Pisa and as powerful as Venice thanks to Genoa’s participation in the First Crusade in 1097 and 1100. The Genovese have always been concerned with money and so nothing, not even prostitution, was a free trade. If the city’s prostitutes wanted to work on the Via Garibaldi, they would have to pay.
Being a prostitute was job, and like all jobs there was a tax on their income, 5 Genovini per day. And just like other workers of that era the prostitutes had Saturdays off and on Sunday they went to Mass, strictly dressed in yellow of course so no one would mistake them for respectable women.
When the weekend was over, the ladies went back to work . The Via Garibaldi was blocked by a gate on each end, manned by porters who kept the peace and discouraged violence. They also would step in if one of the girls was injured and the person responsible for injuring her would be forced to pay a per diem fine equal to the amount the girl would have earned if she had been able to work.
The prices for the prostitute’s services were regulated by marks on the candles used to light their rooms, and the amount a client paid depended on how far down the candle burned during the time the client was - shall we say – otherwise engaged?
|Prices Were Always Posted|
Around the middle of the 1500’s, Genovese bankers, merchants and traders were making money hand over fist – so much money that the 100 years that followed became known as the Century of the Genovese. With their newly found wealth the ever more powerful families began building massive palaces along the edges of Genoa’s crowded historic center. Palaces that still stand to this day like the palazzo Doria-Pamphilly and the Royal Palace. This encroachment on the territory once controlled by the prostitutes and criminals eventually resulted in the closure of the houses of ill repute along the Via Garibaldi and the transfer of the prostitutes to houses of ill repute located closer to the port.
There was some grumbling about the changes but then the rich built their palaces, the prostitutes plied their trade, and life in Genoa went back to normal. Nothing changed again until the early 1800’s when Camillo Paolo Filippo Giulio Benso, Count of Cavour became Italy’s first Prime Minister and decided to create a new law regarding brothels. His law stated that the houses now had to have shutters, and that the shutters had to be closed during working hours so no one could see inside. The houses were also counted as luxury dwellings and regularly taxed.
|Waiting, Waiting, Waiting|
And luxurious they were. At least some of them were luxurious, the ones that served caviar and champagne to their clients and hung velvet curtains on the windows. Others were simply unoccupied low level warehouses with wooden benches with rough weave curtains used as dividers.
In the period between 1900 and the end of World War I, the most famous of the Genovese brothels was called the Hare, and was run by a certain individual known around town as ‘Rina’. ‘Rina’ later earned the nickname “Tiger of Gondar’ when he fought with the Italian army in Ethiopia. No one seems to know what happened to ‘Rina’ but his reputation lives on.
|What Do You Mean You're Closed|
Another famous house was on a narrow alley aptly called Vico dei Ragazzi, or Boy’s Alley. The brothels were off limits to minors but the police would often look the other way, encouraged by handsome compensations from the house madams.
Some rules were applied though. During the Fascists era, prostitutes were forbidden to wear black underwear as black was a color associated with the Fascists Party and not considered suitable to be worn on certain parts of the body. So they said. Rates were more regulated as well, and clients no longer had to check the candles in the room as the prices were listed on the wall.
|Country Road in Piedmont|
At the House of Joy a ‘regular’ visit cost 1.30 lira, a ‘double’ 2.50, a visit of 15 minutes cost 3.05 lira, while a half an hour was 4.50. You could also stay for an hour, that would cost you 7 lira while two hours were discounted to 10 lira. A bargain no matter what currency you traded in. In 1948 there were 700 legal brothels and 3,00 0 registered prostitutes in Italy.
A Genovese friend of mine once told me that at the beginning of his career as a lawyer he worked for Fiat in Turin, and in Turin the Fiat factory workers used to come in from the outer villages on bicycles. The Fiat factory was at the end of a long and lonely country road where prostitutes would line up every morning and evening hoping to do a little business. But because the family finances were usually controlled by the wives, the men pedaling down the country road never had enough money at one time to pay the prostitutes. So they devised a simple payment system. The men would give the prostitute of their choice a few cents every day until they had accumulated enough money in their accounts to pay for a tryst and then with joy they would ditch their bikes and jump into the bushes with the girl – and their wives were never the wiser.
Of course that was after the houses of prostitution were closed and the girls were left to fend for themselves. When the houses were open, the prostitutes were subjected to periodical police checks and were obliged by law to have medical examinations. If a woman became ill, she could be, and most likely would be, thrown out of the house where she worked, but at the same time, she was not allowed to leave if she decided to quit her profession. It was that piece of the problem that spurred Lina Merlin, a member of the Italian Parliament, to start a campaign to close the brothels. It took her more than 10 years but she finally succeeded and on January 1, 1958 the Merlin Law was passed and all the brothels were closed marking the end of an era.
This article was inspired by an article written by Adriana Morando in Era Superba (http://genova.erasuperba.it/rubriche/storia-genova-case-chiuse)