Partly due to memories from our school days, we frequently associate Genoa with the idea of the Maritime Republics. It is important to know that this definition originated in the 19th century to describe certain Italian port cities that had enjoyed political autonomy and economic prosperity since the Middle Ages, thanks to their maritime activities. As such, none of these cities ever identified themselves as a maritime republic in the Middle Ages.
These republics were important not only for the history of navigation and commerce: along with the valuable goods they imported, which Europe would otherwise never have had access to, fresh artistic ideas and news from distant countries also arrived in their ports. The merchants of Genoa, Venice, Pisa and Amalfi used coins minted in gold, which had been in disuse for centuries; they developed new transactions of exchange and accounting, and they led the way in technological developments in navigation. Marine cartography owes much to the maritime republics: the 14th and 15th century maps that have survived to this day all come from the schools of Genoa, Venice and Ancona.
The crusades offered the republics the opportunity to expand their markets: thousands of Italians from the maritime cities poured into the East, creating bases, seaports and commercial establishments, and obtaining judicial, tax, and customs privileges from foreign governments.
From the East, the merchant republics imported a vast range of goods and products that would never have been available otherwise, and also exported local wares, creating a trade triangle formed by the Middle East, the Byzantine Empire and Italy. Until the discovery of America, these ports played an essential role as hubs of trade between Europe and the other continents.