By Barbara Walsh
A paradise high above the Amalfi Coast whose many facets of beauty are composed of medieval ruins, breathtaking views and luxuriant gardens overlooking the sea.
Lord Byron would have love it, Wagner was enthralled by its gardens and vistas, Gore Vidal calls it home for several months each year, Ravello is an utterly-romantic spot, a pocket-sized paradise perched on a rocky ridge, more than one thousand feet abóve the sea.
It is one of the prettiest towns on the Amalfi Coast, the southern side of the Sorrento Peninsula. The peninsula is a finger of land pointing directly at the Island of Capri, and it separates the Bay of Naples, on the Sorrento side of the peninsula, from the much larger Bay of Salerno, on the Amalfi side. Many travelers consider the Amalfi Coast one of the world's most beautiful places.
Ravello is more or less at the center of that coast, clinging to a spur of the craggy Lattari Mountains, which plunge headlong into the depths of the Mediterranean. The town is located high above Amalfi, and its history is interwoven with that of this former capital of a medieval maritime republic. Amalfi was in fact a worthy rival of the great maritime republics of Venice, Pisa and Genoa and is richly endowed with relics of its colourful past.
The road to Ravello climbs from Amalfi in a succession of hairpin curves, revealing beautiful views of sea and coast at every turn. It ascends past terraced lemon groves and vineyards and old mills, tracing a zigzag route along the folds of the mountainside. You can also reach Ravello by another route, only slightly less tortuous, climbing in tight loops from the Sarno Plain, the flatland which separates the Lattari Mountains from the dark, barren bulk of Mount Vesuvius. This route tops out at the Pass of Chiunzi and cuts through thick chestnut woods to Ravello.
Reaching Ravello, you find a world of quiet charm and tranquillity. With few exceptions automobile traffic is deviated to an inconspicuous parking area below the main piazza or routed right out of town through a tunnel. Ravello is a town for people, not cars. From the piazza peaceful lanes and ramps of broad stairs traverse the town, leading to medieval churches, gracious old hotels and villas with romantic gardens and belvederes commanding stupendous views.
Aside from a few inevitable concessions to the tourist trade in and around the piazza, where there are a couple of sidewalk cafés and several shops selling bright ceramics, coral and sundry souvenirs, Ravello remains remarkably unspoiled. And except for a few major holidays during the year when crowds of vacationers disrupt its placid atmosphere, the little town is an enchanting dreamy place.
Ravello's position high aboveAmalfi has determined its history, its intact beauty and its extraordinary appeal. The town was founded in the Middle Ages, by dissident nobles from the powerful maritime republic of Amalfi.
The noble class of Amalfi was composed of the descendants of a group of Roman patricians who chose to settle on the coast after they were shipwrecked in the area while en route to Constantinople.
First they founded Scala, a town even higher than Ravello, on a spur of rock well out of the reach of the marauding pirates who infested the Mediterranean 1and safe from the grabby rulers of the inland provinces.
The colonists cultivated the land and established other villages, including Amalfi on the sea. Inevitably, in an era of intense trade with the East, Amalfi's position on the sea and its potential as a port made it much more important than Scala or the other villages on the mountainside. Soon Amalfi's power and prosperity prevailed over them all.
In the 7th century Amalfi was strong enough to resist the besieging troops of Benevento, then a Lombard duchy whose influence extended over much of Southern Italy. Eventually, however, Amalfi had to accept domination by the Lombard dukes.
But in the 9th century, Amalfi regained its independence and declared itself a republic, electing a doge, or duke, as its ruler. It was in opposition to the policies of the doge that a handful of Amalfi's nobles withdrew from the republic to establish a new settlement under a doge of their own choosing. They set up their small but opulent community high above Amalfi, on Mount Torello. Because ot its rebellion against Amalfi's constituted authority, the community was known to the Amalfitani as ribello, or rebel, and this is probably the origin of Ravello's name.
Ravello's founders built fine palaces and churches on the chosen site on Mount Torello. The buildings were erected in the Arab-influenced Sicilian Norman style. The Arab conquest of Sicily had given enormous impetus to trade in the Mediterranean, and Amalfi was a major commercial gateway on the most direct trade route to the island of Sicily and beyond, as far as the Levant.
Amalfi's merchants sent ships laden with goods – lumber, barrel staves, cured meat, wine, rose water, iron and fruit – to the markets of the East. The vessels then returned with odourous cargoes of cinnamon, clove, pepper, indigo, perfumes, gems, amber, pearls, opulent fabrics and marvellous Oriental carpets. In the 11th century Amalfi was famed through the then-known world as a citi rich in gold and drapery.
And Ravello, which had become reconciled with Amalfi in the meantime, shared in the glory of the great maritime republic. During the Middle Ages ravello's population swelled to a peak of thirty-five thousand. Today it is little more than two thousand.
The homes of its wealthy nobles were built on a grand scale. One of them, Villa Rufolo, is a premier attraction. It was erected between 1266 and 1289 for Nicola Rufolo, who, it is said, was a descendant of one of Ravello's founding fathers.
The fabulous Rufolo residence, with a Gothic tower at the entrance, stands just across the way from the medieval cathedral. When Giovanni Boccaccio visited the villa in the 1300s, the richness and splendour of the palace and its gardens impressed him greatly and in part inspired the setting for his Decameron. The medieval palace was enlarged over the centuries but it bears the unmistakable stamp of Islamic architecture. Despite various restorations and adaptations, the towers, the beautiful sunken courtyard with intertwined stone arches, and the vaulted hails still emanate the exotic fascination of the East.
When Richard Wagner visited Villa Rufolo in May 1880, parts of the palace had fallen into romantic ruin, but the gardens were irrepressibly lush and luxuriant, possibly even more so than in the Middle Ages. Towering palm trees and cypresses had grown as tall as the towers and there were flowers everywhere. Wagner, thoroughly charmed by the sight of Villa Rufolo, exclaimed, "The enchanted Garden of Klingsor has been found." And Villa Rufolo claims the honor of having inspired the setting of Wagner's musical masterpiece, Parsifal. Actually, it seems that Wagner visited Ravello in the company of the painter Jonkousky, whom he had asked to design the sets for the opera he was composing at that time. And, in fact, when they entered the gardens of Villa Rufolo they both realized that they had found the perfect model for the scenery for the second act of Parsifal.
His much publicized remark, recorded in the villa's guest book, earned the German composer a privileged piace in the list of its illustrious visitors and the honor of having Ravello's annual July music festival dedicated to him and, in part, to his best-known compositions.
Unforgettable setting for the festival's concerts, the gardens are magnificent throughout the year. Exuberant creepers soften the severe lines of Gothic towers and vaults, immense hydrangeas bloom in the sunken, cloistered courtyard, cascades of bougainvillea and ranks of other bright blossoms form splashes of color among the glossy, evergreen foliage of exotic shrubs. The terraced gardens of Villa Rufolo open onto spectacular views of the beautiful Amalfi Coast, embracing sea and sky and mountains.
Together with Boccaccio and Wagner, the long list of Ravello's more famous visitors includes Verdi and Grieg. And many other musicians - Bruno Walter, Arturo Toscanini, Enrico Caruso, Bernstein, Kempff and Rostropovitch - have stayed and worked here.
This intimate relationship between music and Ravello is reiterated every year at several concert series which have become a regular part of the town's cultura life. There are concerts at the New Year and Easter, and a chamber music series in June. The July Festival of Ravello, dedicated to Wagner, stages concerts in the gardens of Villa Rufolo, with a symphony orchestra playing against the background of that glorious view of the coast.
The concerts continue in July and August with a series featuring young performers and with a midnight concert series in August. In September Villa Rufolo is again the venue of a program of concerts, though on a more intimate scale than the July series. The September recital showcase solo performers, usually pianists, violinists and vocalists.
Ravello has long been connected with the arts, and not only with music.
From Boccaccio on, it has attracted literary lights and other personalities. John Ruskin visited Ravello in the 1800s, and André Gide set some ot the central action of his book The Immoralist in Ravello. E.M. Forster vacationed here, and described some of its most charming corners in his stories. The historic Hotel Caruso, known for its magnificent garden-belvedere and lemon soufflés, has harbored many a celebrity. Virginia Woolf and other Bloomsbury literati sojourned there, and in 1938 it was the scene ot a short but intense love affair involving Greta Garbo e conductor Leopold Stokowski. Graham Green wrote The third man at the Hotel Caruso and William Styron made it the setting of his novel Set this house in fire.
Another of Ravello's historic residences is the Hotel Palumbo, the historic 12th-century Palazzo Confalone, with a cloisterlike atrium paved with majolica and studded with antique columns. One of the noble families ot the Republic ot Amalfi, the House of Confalone sent several ot its more stal-wart members off to the Crusades during the Middle Ages. After the family seat became the prestigious Hotel Palumbo, it hosted Wagner, Paul Valéry, Edmond Rostand and, in more recent times, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote.
Long a destination chosen by connoisseurs of soul-stirring vistas and quiet charm, Ravello has many other attractions. Not of the least of them is its cathedral, which was founded in 1087 and dedicated to Saint Pantaleone. It was the most important of the one hundred churches erected in Ravello during the town's most prosperous period, of which only ten survive.
Now that restorers have stripped away most of the Baroque architecture frosting added to the cathedral in the 18th century, it has taken on an austere medieval aspect. Still in place are the eight-hundred-year-old bronze doors, green with the patina of age. Composed of some fifty-four bronze panels decorated with figures in relief and mounted on a heavy wooden support, the portals were signed and dated in 1179 by Barisano da Trani, the Puglian sculptor who executed similar doors for the cathedral of Trani, near Bari, and the cathedral of Monreale in Sicily. On either side of the broad nave of the cathedral are handsome medieval pulpits. On the right the larger, 13th- century pulpit is decorated with stylized carvings and bright mosaics in geometric patterns. Mosaic encrustations also decorate the slender twisted columns which support the pulpit and which in turn rest on a pride of wary marble lions. On the left side of the nave, a smaller, still-earlier pulpit dating to the 12th century is simpler in form. It is adorned with fantastic sea beasts in light-green mosaic. These strange creatures, which represent the story of Jonah and the Whale, could only have been modelled on a medieval bestiary.
Another of Ravello's historic churches, San Giovanni del Toro, is a 12th-century edifice in which medieval builders utilized ancient columns subtracted from the remains of classical structures in the area. The pulpit is adorned with more mosaic sea beasts as well as with Persian majolicas and 14th-century frescoes.
Another of Ravello's evocative villa gardens and another breathtaking vista are only a ten-minute stroll away from the town's main piazza. The walk to Villa Cimbrone meanders past walled gardens and old residences with sober stone façades. Here and there stone walls are haphazardly embedded with fragments of classical sculpture or with ancient columns framing a portal.
At the end of the lane, inconspicuous little signs point the way to Villa Cimbrone, an estate which extends along the seaward end of the ridge on which Ravello is built. The villa was purchased in the early 1900s by an English aristocrat who built himself a rather eclectic mansion inspired by the then fashionable neo-Gothic taste. A cloistered courtyard harboring a serendipitous sculpture collection and a vaulted terrace are the only parts of the house open to visitors. The rest is still occupied by its present owners.
However, Villa Cimbrone's main attractions are the park and the View. Long allées through the park, embellished with flower beds and classical statuary, lead to a clifftop belvedere. There, quaintly dilapidated marble busts frame a vista perhaps even more overhelming than that at Villa Rufolo, and decicledly more, vertiginous. Below the balustrade, the cliff curves slightly inward, heightening the effect of the sheer drop. A small and unobtrusive café installed in the park behind the belvedere can provide strong spirits to revive visitors faint from either beauty or elevation. And there are a few tables under the trees for anyone wishing to linger in this lovely spot, perhaps enviously pondering the fact that American author Gore Vidal's villa, hidden away just below Villa Cimbrone, has the same wonderful views.
With its gardens and distant vistas, Ravello is best visited in fair weather under clear skies, conditions prevalent on the sheltered Amalfi Coast. Nevertheless, the town also has a more subtle appeal in stormy weather, when visitors comfortably ensconced in the roomy, glassed-in verandahs of hotels and restaurants can contemplate the swiftly changing light transforming the colors of coast, sea and cloud-streaked sky. In all seasons, Ravello has charms to enchant both eye and spirit.