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on the Amalfi Coast
Bill Austin, Barry Nelson, Jon Kaiser (1999)
Amalfi is situated just south of Naples on the western
coast of the peninsula. Of all the places one can choose to
explore in Italy, Amalfi is certainly one of the most interesting, if not
the most beautiful. According to myth, the god Hercules built the
city on the spot where he buried the nymph Melphe, whom he loved (Matonti,
18). More likely, Amalfi was the settlement of Romans who were
shipwrecked during a journey to Constantinople in the 4th Century AD while
escaping Barbarian attacks on Rome (Converso, 114).
In this respect, Amalfi is truly a product of the decline and disintegration
of the Western Roman Empire. Amalfi is a medieval city, and its historical
pinnacle was during this era.
Amalfi comes to our attention for several
reasons, not the least of which is its shear beauty. It was the first
of the four Maritime Republics of Italy (De Vero,
40). It was through
Amalfi that paper is introduced to Europe (De Vero,
64; Senzanonna, 2). Through its prowess of the seas and dominance
in international trade, Amalfi drafted the most effective code of maritime
law of the time, the ‘Tabula Amalphitana’, which was adopted by all the
maritime powers of the area. The compass was reportedly first used
by Amalfi ships and invented by Flavio Gioia of Amalfi, whose statue can
be seen between the sea and the entrance to the city (Matonti,
city of Amalfi on the Costaria Amalphitana.
From its beginning, Amalfi was
economically strong (Matonti, 18), a testament
to what a community can do if left to its own design. Although officially
ruled by the Byzantine Empire for three centuries from 533 AD, it was in
practice autonomous, even electing its own leaders. The Longobards (The
Lombards of northern Europe are frequently referred to as Longobards in
Italian to English translations found in Italy - DP) in Salerno captured Amalfi in 838 and transported much of the population
back to Salerno, but they rebelled and with the help of Arab mercenaries,
regained their freedom the next year and returned to Amalfi, but not before
burning Salerno to the ground and killing their leader (Converso,
116). From 850 to the 11th Century, Amalfi was an independent
republic with control of a vast territory adjoining the Duchy of Naples (Matonti, 18).
In the 10th Century at the height
of its commercial expansion, Amalfi was coining its own money, and its
ships were trading in Tripoli, Alexandria, Tunisia, and Constantinople (Matonti, 23).
Cathedral (Duomo) of St. Andrew in Amalfi
city against the rugged mountains that drop
into the sea.
| These varied contacts inevitably
led to the importation and exportation of culture, ideas, and people.
For example, in 1020 people from Amalfi built the church of S. Giovanni
l’Elomosiniere in Jerusalem (Converso, 117).
Amalfi even had a Jewish minority (Hearder, 54).
Arab influence is evident in the construction of the Cathedral of S. Andrew,
the Duomo of Amalfi, and its adjoining cloister, and the Arab process of
paper manufacture which Amalfi adopted and introduced to the rest of Italy.
An old paper mill is preserved as a museum and the hand made paper can
still be bought today. These last three, the Cathedral, Cloister,
and paper museum will be the focus of the rest of out visit through Amalfi.
In the center of Amalfi, to paraphrase
Peter Gabriel, stands a big church for a big God. The sight of this
cathedral dedicated to S. Andrew with its 62 wide, steep steps and of its
off-center bell tower is awe-inspiring. The outer façade is oversized
and dominates the attention of passers-by. The cathedral was begun
in the 9th Century, perhaps on the foundation of an earlier chapel (Roman?) (De Vero, 54). It was modified and retouched
several times and was nearly completely reconstructed in 1700. On
the original Romantic foundation, Byzantine, Arab-Norman, Gothic, and Baroque
elements were superimposed (De Vero, 55).
The inside of the cathedral
is large by any standard. Beautiful, majestic Roman columns with
perfect capitals abound, side by side with Baroque gold decorations, frescoes,
and marble of white, blue, green, and red. Below the cathedral is
the Chapel of Christ Crucified were the Baroque sacredness is more fully
expressed. There in lies the crypt containing the remains of S. Andrew
brought back from Constantinople during the IV Crusade. The atrium
of the cathedral is in a Gothic style and the bronze doors of the portal
can be seen here. The doors were custom made for cathedral in Constantinople
in 1066. The bell tower is the other prominent feature from the piazza.
It was begun in 1180 and not finished until over a century later.
It is in a Romanesque style with four small Arab style towers decorated
with interlaced arches, and covered by bright green and yellow majolica
tiles. It was also used as a defense in times of war (Matonti,
The most beautiful place
is arguable the Chiostro del Paradiso or the Cloister of Paradise.
The slim white columns and very pointed slim arches have a strong Arab
feel to it. It dates back to 1266 and preserves Roman and medieval
archaeological remains with fragments of the original cathedral (De
Vero, 57). It was originally a cemetery for the noble families
of Amalfi. Today, however, it preserves a moment in time. With
the bell tower directly overhead and palm trees, it’s a very peaceful place
to stop and contemplate the history that surrounds you, and where else
can you buy a walk through paradise for only 3000 Lire (Today still less than 5
Top to bottom: Cloister of Paradise showing
Arabesque style narrow pointed arches. Lush
greenery in the Cloister of Paradise. Example
of fine mosaic tile work inside the duomo. The
off center bell tower (campanile) of the
Cathedral of Amalfi.
| Amalfi was one of the first European
cities to produce paper. The Museum of Paper in Amalfi is an excellent
example of the process that brought Amalfi a lot of recognition.
They leaned the process from the Arabs they traded with, and in its hey
day of the 12th Century, several paper mills dotted the Valley of the Mills
along the river Canneto. The process was eminently practical.
It used waterpower to turn its wheels and pistons, and it used recycled
mops, rags and other fibrous materials no longer needed elsewhere.
The truly laborious work, that of breaking the fibers down to a mushy pulp,
was done by the action of the water wheel. The paper was far superior
to the sheepskin parchment usually used and much cheaper and easier to
make than the papyra that had been made in Egypt (Senzanonna,
2-4; De Vero, 72).
Although I had been to Amalfi before, this
trip left me with a deeper appreciation of this beautiful little town.
It is much more than a ‘tourist stop’ with few card shops and a nice beach.
It has a deep and rich history and tradition readily available to discover
for anyone who is curious enough. There is so much more in Amalfi
that can not be explored in five pages. There are monasteries now
owned by hotels, more cloisters, other churches, other museums, medieval
towers, an seemingly endless maze of little stairs and walk ways that open
up to other small piazze, and all throughout, every building and door you
pass is someone’s home or shop.
We met an elderly lady on the main street
through Amalfi. Actually she flagged us down. We thought she
would be sick of tourists, but she was fascinated that Americans
who live in Naples would be interested in her little town. She shared
with us how she and her husband had made a fortune in the restaurant business,
first in Naples, then England, and New York. After her husband died
she returned to Amalfi. She could live anywhere in the world and
it was to Amalfi she came home to, much like the Amalfitani who were taken
away by the Longobards and did not rest until they also returned 1160 years
ago. In the people is found the character and history of this place.
For the cloisters and cathedral are beautiful and majestic, but it is the
people of Amalfi who built them, defended them, and fill them still.