A Brief History Of The Amalfi Coast

Originally published on thenileguide.com

With pebbly beaches lined with rows of colourful umbrellas, seaside restaurants and tourists strolling along the narrow streets, it’s hard to imagine Amalfi as more than the pretty seaside resort that it is today. Nature seems to have perfectly adjusted to idea of the town nestled in the ravine of the Valle dei Mulini and set alongside the sea. Yet, the history of Amalfi is far more remarkable than today’s tranquil setting suggests.

The majestic beauty of the Amalfi Coast has always been irresistible. Greek sailors admired the dramatic landscape, even imagining parts of the coastline as home to mythic creatures. Later wealthy Roman patricians built seaside villas along the coast and created some of the first settlements. The first document tracing the origin of Amalfi, dating from 596, is a letter written by Pope Gregory I when the town was a defensive point for the Byzantine Duchy of Naples. Taking advantage of a period of unrest in the region, Amalfi declared itself a Republic in 839. This small fishing town was about to take the Mediterranean by storm.

By the time the Republics of Pisa, Genoa and Venice were firmly established, Amalfi traders were already navigating the waters and trading throughout the Mediterranean. At this time the town’s small harbor was full of sailing vessels that crisscrossed the sea, reaching ports as far as Egypt, Syria and Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire. Amalfi had its own gold currency, called the Tarì, which was used in ports throughout the Mediterranean, Africa, the Greek Empire and the East. Amalfi’s influence on the seas is well documented in the Tabula Amalphitana, or the Amalfi Tables, which established a maritime code that used throughout the Mediterranean until 1570.

Amalfi remained a rich and powerful Republic until 1073 when it fell under Norman control. Power was shifting in the Mediterranean to the Republics of Pisa and Genoa, both of which were eager to secure their territory. Amalfi suffered two damaging attacks by the Pisans in 1135 and again two years later. Despite these setbacks, Amalfi thrived intellectually and creatively during the 12th and 13th centuries. During this period, Amalfi sailors were among the first to introduce the compass for navigational purposes. The town’s impressive Duomo was constructed during this period, including the serene Cloister of Paradise (1268) and the Romanesque-Moorish style Campanile (1180-1276).

Thanks to trading connections with the East, by about the 1230s Amalfi became one of the first locations in Europe to produce paper. Sitting at the base of a ravine with a fresh water source running down the Valle dei Mulini (Valley of the Mills), Amalfi was an ideal setting for paper making. Mills were powered by the cool mountain water, and Amalfi’s paper was soon sold all over the Mediterranean. Paper making continued as an important local trade throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Today you can visit the ruins of the original mills as well as learn more about the history of paper making in Amalfi at the Museo della Carta (Paper Museum).

Amalfi’s period of prosperity changed drastically in the 14th century when the town succumbed to the plague in 1306 and 1348. The trading economy was all but ruined during a devastating sea storm in 1343 that destroyed the port, sailing ships and much of the town. Amalfi’s days as a major maritime Republic were over, and the town came under the rule of the nearby Kingdom of Naples in the late 14th century.

Lacking military and trading influence, the town slowly returned to a sleepy fishing village. By the 19th century travellers from throughout Europe began to rediscover the history and beauty of the Naples area on the Grand Tour. The wild and seemingly untouched beauty of the Amalfi Coast spoke to the romantic spirit of these travellers, who found inspiration in the scenes of daily life, the evocative architecture and natural landscape. Writers, poets, musicians and painters arriving on the Amalfi Coast were stunned by its natural beauty. The American poet Henry Longfellow arrived in 1869 and later wrote a poem entitled “Amalfi” (1875) inspired by his time in the small fishing village.

The Amalfi Coast remained isolated geographically until the 19th century when Ferdinand II, the Bourbon King of Naples,  commissioned the construction of a road connecting the villages dotting the coastline. The Amalfi Coast road reached Amalfi by the middle of the century, and this provided the access that today allows countless tourists each year to experience the beauty of the Amalfi Coast.