Amalfi and Ravello : Costiera Amalfitana

ItaAmalfi was one of Italy’s four ancient Maritime Republics, the others being Genoa, Pisa and Venice. Powerful in the middle ages (839-1135) it traded extensively with the Orient long holding the monopoly for commerce in the Tyrrhenian Sea exporting Italian goods to Eastern markets in exchange for spices, perfume, pearls and jewels, textiles and rugs to trade in the West. North African influence is visible in Amalfi’s old traditional dwellings with narrow streets and houses clinging together connected by labyrinth style covered alleyways and staircases.
The Amalfi coast was granted UNESCO world heritage status in 1997 to be preserved for its natural and unique beauty. It has an immense diversity of landscapes ranging from coastal settlements through the intensively cultivated low slopes and large areas of pastoral land to the dramatic high mountains. It is described as one grand balcony suspended between a sea of cobalt blue and the feet of the Lattari Mountains in a stretch of hollows and promontories with cultivated terraces, vineyards and lemon and olive groves.
The towns of Amalfi, Positano and Ravello have captivated and inspired artists for centuries from the fourteenth century author and poet Giovanni Boccaccio to nineteenth century Richard Wagner and twentieth century playwright Tennessee Williams. American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) achieved enormous popularity with long poems such as Evangeline (1847), The Song of Hiawatha (1855) and Amalfi (1875), waxing lyric to the idyllic resort on the west coast of Italy on the Gulf of Salerno. Amalfi was much visited by royalty and was a favourite place for the British upper class to spend winter on the Grand Tour in Europe, some of whom never left.
In medieval times Amalfi had its own coin called the Tari and flourished with schools of law and mathematics. It founded an imposing hospital in Jerusalem leading to the Order of St. John, then Knights of Cyprus, of Rhodes and in 1530 the Knights of Malta that still exist. Mediterranean seafaring was once governed by Tabula Amalfatine, one of the oldest maritime codes from the twelfth century. Amalfi’s ancient shipyard, now The Museum of the Compass and of the Maritime Duchy of Amalfi, tells the story of its nautical history with exhibits of ancient maps and documents, and the compass that revolutionised navigation techniques associated with Flavio Gioca. This son of Amalfi is honoured with a statue at the original place of the port where ships docked and unloaded.
A jewel in the crown is the byzantine Duomo or Cathedral of Amalfi one of the most visited monuments on the coast. Testimony to its history and ancient past includes the Cloister of Paradise, the Basilica of the Crucifix which houses the Museum, the crypt of St. Andrew and the Cathedral. A long flight of steps leads to the impressive main portals and its treasures are inestimable. In the atrium are the first bronze doors brought to Italy from Constantinople with four fine figures in Byzantine style representing Christ and the Virgin, with initials in Greek, as well as St. Peter and St. Andrew, with legends in Latin.
The Cathedral of Amalfi is where the “head and other bones” of Saint Andrew are preserved. The Apostle who had evangelised Greece, ranging as far as modern day Russia, was crucified in Patras. From there Cardinal Pietro Capuano, Papal Envoy to the Fourth Crusade, took his body first to Constantinople and later to Amalfi where he is venerated as the patron saint. His statue is a focus of pilgrimage for Amalfitans and visitors.
On a smaller scale the medieval town of Ravello is perched on a promontory at l,198 feet or 365 metres. Considered one of the most romantic and beautiful small towns in southern Italy, it was described by French novelist André Gidé as a place closer to the sky than the sea. Protected by its walls, it is a peaceful place blessed with lush gardens, quiet lanes, sun drenched corners with lofty and spectacular panoramic views of the sea. Ravello is part of the area protected as a UNESCO world heritage site since 1997.
At the heart of Ravello lie an eleventh century cathedral and the Villa Rufolo, which is one of two villas for which the town is famous. Considered the masterwork in the town’s extensive repertoire of historical and architectural show pieces, the villa was built in the thirteenth century by one of the wealthiest families at the time in Ravello. At the height of its glory, it boasted “more rooms than there are days in the year”. Popes and kings are included amongst its renowned guests. Falling into decline and almost state of ruin, in 1851 Villa Rufolo was bought by a wealthy Scottish botanist, Nevile Reid,* who restored it to its antique splendour, adding exotic plants, pines and cypresses.
On a visit to Ravello in 1880, the German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) is said to have been taken by its beauty and entranced with the storybook atmosphere of Villa Rufolo. He was moved to exclaim that he had found … “the magical garden of Klingsor” … as the tangible expression of his most fantastic visions. It inspired a character in his three-act opera Parsifel that is based on a thirteenth century epic poem.
In a long tradition of attracting artists and musicians, since 1953 a summer Chamber Musical Festival has taken place annually organised by the Ravello Concert Society. Popularly known as the Wagner Festival, more recently the prestigious event has expanded to include large orchestras, jazz, art shows, dance, photography exhibits, discussion groups and a chance to meet and talk with featured artists, many of whom are of world renown. For the duration, a special stage is erected projecting high over the sea at Villa Rufolo’s upper gardens in a spectacular setting with wide views of the Amalfi coast.
Francis Nevile Reid (1826-1892)*
An illustrated book with forty pictures and extensive notes is titled Francis Nevile Reid RAVELLO. With an introduction by Gore Vidal dated January 1997, it is based on the notes of Francis Nevile Reid, a Scots gentleman, who bought Ravello’s legendary Villa Rufolo in 1851, where he remained until his death. The body of the text is in Italian and English and gives the historical and social context of what was then a remote village without a proper water supply or negotiable roads to the outside. Ravello and the neighbouring towns were only small hamlets of fishermen and peasants, ignorant of their own history. The art and history of Ravello, Scala, Minori, Atrani, were re-examined by the first foreigner that chose the Amalfitan ‘Costa divina’ as his adoptive country.
An Obituary Notice in the ‘The Times’ of 1892 recalls the life of Francis Nevile Reid, who died at Ravello on 12 July 1892, where he had made his home. He had lived in the beautiful region of southern Italy for some forty years. A member of a wealthy Scottish family, he suffered as a very young man from a delicate chest and, during a journey in Italy, he found great good from the air of Ravello above Amalfi. He proved a generous benefactor providing local needs and developing infrastructure. At one point with his wife and her mother he made a hasty escape down a long narrow path from Ravello after a warning that local scoundrels and brigands were assembled to attack. They took a boat to Capri from the little seaport of Minori below until it was safe to return.
Ita Marguet
Note : Acknowledgement is given to sources used in this text. It follows brief visits from Rome to Amalfi and Ravello by the Amalfi coast road, in the Campania region, Italy (June 2012).