entry Apr. 2003
moved Jan. 2011
In 337 a.d., Roman
patricians on their way to Constantinople were shipwrecked along so
stunningly beautiful a coast that they understandably decided to
stay marooned and let war and empire pass them by. Centuries hence,
the 19th century Italian writer, Renato Fucini, would say: "When
the inhabitants of Amalfi get to heaven on Judgment Day, it will be
just like any other day for them."
For centuries thereafter—in the turmoil following the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire—Amalfi
remained one of the small coastal enclaves ruled nominally by the
Byzantine Empire. Finally, in 839, Amalfi was conquered by the Duchy of Benevento, itself a
holdout against Byzantium. Benevento was badly in need of a port,
and though there is little documentation from that period, the fact
that Benevento bothered to take Amalfi at all may mean that the
place had already developed into a port of some importance.
Upon the death of the Duke, Amalfi freed itself from Benevento
and went into business for itself. In 957, the head of Amalfi took
the title of Duke, putting himself on an equal level with other
rulers of the area. Little by little, the Amalfi fleet expanded and
spread throughout the Mediterranean. Many places throughout the
Mediterranean still have small churches to Saint Andrew, patron
saint of Amalfi—churches built by Amalfi seafarers centuries ago.
They established a strong presence in Antioch, and especially
Constantinople, where they were the single greatest group of
merchants in the commerce between East and West, taking an active
political and economic role in the life of the Byzantine Empire. In
Constantinople in the middle of the tenth century, there was an
"Amalfi Quarter," replete with schools and stores. And in Jerusalem
the Amalfitans founded the Order of the Knights, which later became
the famous Order of Malta.
The height of the Maritime
Republic of Amalfi (see note at
the end of this entry, below) came at about the turn of the
millennium, when Amalfi was a great exporter of wood and iron, and
importer of spices, carpets, silk, and perfumes from the Orient,
goods that found a market in the Papal
States to the north and all the cities in the south of Italy.
The cathedral of Amalfi (photo, left) is from that period. It was
built in 1066 and still has the portals imported from
Constantinople (also see here). Like
the other maritime republics, Amalfi even coined its own money, the Tarì.
Code, the so-called tavole
amalfitane, was formulated, a
that regulated maritime trade in the Mediterranean from the 1000s
to the 1500s and that served as a model for future maritime
law. Here, they say, too, is where Flavio
Gioia (c. 1300) invented the
compass—or at least improved upon the device borrowed from the
Arabs. (*See note below.)
The fortune of Amalfi changed dramatically for the worse in the 1100s. Three things happened. First, the powerful Normans, who would eventually take over all of southern Italy to found the Kingdom of Naples, took the city in 1131. With that, Amalfitan independence ceased. Second, the town was sacked by the maritime competition, Pisa, in 1135 and again in 1137. Third, Amalfi failed to participate in the first Crusade, leading further to its decline, and to the rise of competing maritime republics in the north of Italy. Somewhat later, in 1343, a powerful earthquake destroyed the port of Amalfi, administering a belated coup de grace to the once proud maritime power.
If you visit Amalfi today, you can still see the ruins of what was the largest naval shipyard in medieval Europe. As well, you can visit a restored and functioning paper mill, recalling the days when the Amalfitans took the art of paper-making from the Arabs and made it their own, turning out precious paper products for export throughout the Mediterranean. The tradition of nostalgic paper-making continues to this day, and you can buy characteristic replicas of historic Amalfi letter paper, cards, maps, etc. Also, the area—like much of southern Italy—is marked by the presence of Saracen towers, built to guard against incursions by the Arabs and, later, the Turks. Worthy of attention in Amalfi is the Civic Museum, which has the only remaining copy of the Amalfi Maritime Code, mentioned above.
The current accessibility of Amalfi by vehicular traffic is
to the road-building enthusiasm of Ferdinand
Bourbon, King of Naples, in
the mid-nineteenth century, who opened a road all along the
Sorrentine peninsula and over to the Amalfi coast.
also see Amalfi (2)
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