AMALFI IS NOW so much a tourist town, with the hotels and shops this implies, that it takes some effort of the imagination to realize that in its heyday it was one of the major ports not just of Italy but of the Mediterranean.
The area was recovered from the Goths by the Byzantines in 573, but distance from Byzantium meant that with time the Amalfitans gained de facto independence. The poverty of the local soil must have encouraged Amalfi’s development as a naval and commercial power.
In 812 her sailors achieved a significant victory over the Saracens, but the place was sacked in 838 by the Prince of Benevento, who controlled Salerno.
A year later the Amalfitans returned. Their republic was ruled first by prefects who were selected annually and later by an elected doge.
The Normans seized Amalfi in 1073, but it was briefly once again a free republic until 1101 and remained a significant maritime power.
The Amalfitans’ rivals, the Pisans, sacked the town in 1135 and 1137.
Their town did not recover. In subsequent centuries it was to be controlled by the kings of Naples.
The Monti Lattari and the Sorrentine Peninsula rise steeply from the Gulf of Salerno.
The coastal road as it winds above the shore westwards from Vietri is, even now, not for the faint-hearted.
It passes Atrani, crowded within its narrow valley, and then twists down to Amalfi. The Piazza Gioia is on the waterfront; near this, from the Via Camera, you can look into the surviving portion of the Arsenale della Repubblica, an early medieval covered dockyard in two sections, recently restored as a museum. From the piazza walk north to the Piazza Duomo, overhung by the Duomo to which a flight of steps ascends.
The front is a reconstruction of after 1875, but the beautiful campanile on the left is original; begun in 1189, it was finished in 1276.
The church is justly celebrated for its bronze doors, made in Byzantium before 1066 by Simone da Siria and presented by Pantaleone di Mauro, who in 1087 – the year in which he commanded the Amalfitan fleet in alliance with Pisa and Genoa against the ruler of Tunisia – gave a similar pair to the church of San Salvatore de’ Bireto at Atrani.
On the north of the Duomo is the small but singularly distinguished Chiostro del Paradiso of 1266–8, intended as a cemetery.
There is a strong Arab influence, with unexpectedly tall and narrow interlaced arches rising from the columns. The adjacent rooms house the museum.
The main street continues northwards from the piazza. A minor church apart, there is no building of particular interest, but the cumulative effect is compelling: every available piece of land on which it was practical to build was exploited.
High above Atrani is Ravello, which by the ninth century was subject to Amalfi, but in the eleventh sought to shake off its too powerful neighbour by supporting the Normans.
With the eclipse of Amalfitan power, Ravello grew in both wealth and importance, and it is said to have had a population of thirty-six thousand in the thirteenth century.
The road from the coast writhes upwards, passing the Romanesque church of Santa Maria a Gradillo. Abandon your car as soon as possible, to walk up to the main piazza, which is overlooked by the Duomo; this was founded in 1086 when Ravello became a bishopric.
The austere façade has been restored In 1179 Barisano da Trani supplied the bronze doors with compartments including scenes from the Passion and representations of saints.
Equally remarkable are the ambone decorated with mosaic panels, commissioned in 1130 by the then bishop, and the pulpit of 1272 by Niccolò di Bartolomeo da Foggia.
Across the piazza is the Villa Rufolo, begun in the late thirteenth century for the prominent family of that name, one of whom is mentioned in Boccaccio’s Decameron.
The villa was purchased in 1851 and subsequently restored by a Scot, Francis Neville Reid: the most satisfying element is the courtyard with loggias on two levels.
The terraced garden is reasonably well maintained.
Higher up in the town is the church of San Giovanni del Toro, with a good twelfth-century pulpit by the obscure Alfano da Termoli.
The presence of works by artists not only from Byzantium but also from the Adriatic ports of Trani and Termoli reminds us of Amalfi’s former importance as a trading power.