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Amalfi on the Amalfi Coast

by 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, 28) 

Panorama of the Amalfi Coast focused on the City of Amalfi, Italy.

The 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)

The Facade of the 12th century Cathedral of S. Andrew in Amalfi, Italy

The Cathedral (Duomo) of St. Andrew in Amalfi

Amalfi is built onto rugged cliffs that drop from over a thousand feet into the sea.

The 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, 32)

        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 Euro)? 

A collage of the Duomo of St. Andrew. Includes the Cloister of Paradise, mosaic tiles and a picture of the campanile (bell tower)

From 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. Home Home | Italy MAPS | Academic Content | Links | About Us | Italy News | Italian Phrasebook | Italy Weather | Site Map

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