It also saw the invention of the nautical compass and coined its own currency, the ‘tari.’ The legends that tell of the founding of Amalfi are diverse, but all point to its Roman origins. The name is derived from Latin: possibly from ‘Melfi,’ a Lucan village abandoned by the Romans in the 4th century, or it may correspond to the Roman family surname “Amarfia” (1st century A.D.).
“The people of Amalfi established an economic and commercial
network to which the West owes inventions, technologies and goods
that transformed the face of Europe.”
To escape the barbaric hordes, many Romans living in the countryside took refuge in the Lattari Mountains. They then descended to Amalfi, which in the year 596 was already a bishopric. The city begins to appear in historic documents from around 600, as a fortress for the defense of the Roman-Byzantine Duchy of Naples. Endowed with extraordinary nautical capacities, from the 8th century Amalfi became one of the main port cities in the Mediterranean, creating settlements with its own shops and hospitals.
Old town square, Amalfi
In order to better defend itself against Lombard attacks, on September 1 in 839 an autonomous Republic was founded, a sort of Ducal monarchy. The Duchy of Amalfi included the towns we know today as Agerola, Atrani, Cetara, Conca dei Marini, Furore, Gragnano, Lettere, Minori, Malori, Pimonte, Positano, Praiano, Ravello, Scala, Tramonti, Vietri sul Mare and the island of Capri.
Detail, Duomo di Amalfi
“The people of Amalfi established an economic and commercial network to which the West – that up until the Early Middle Ages was relatively “underdeveloped” compared to the East – owes inventions, technologies and goods that transformed the face of Europe,” affirms Giuseppe Cobalto, president of the Cultural and Historical Centre of Amalfi. Given its geographic position, the city acted as a mediator between Arabic and Byzantine civilizations and the Romanic-Germanic West.
Amalfi produced silk, coffee, sugar, lemons, goldsmith objects and ceramic art. In the 13th century it also introduced paper and its manufacturing techniques. Certified for the first time in a document from 1059, the Arsenal of the Republic provides proof of this flourishing period. This was once the site where ships of the Duchy of Amalfi were built, while today it houses the Museum of the Compass and of the Maritime Duchy, where the oldest Italian maritime statue can be found.
"Given its geographic position, the city acted as a mediator between Arabic
and Byzantine civilizations and the Romanic-Germanic West."
The Maritime Republic became so prosperous that competing powers tried several times to conquer it. Amalfi lost its independence in 1131, becoming part of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily, while its trading supremacy was surpassed by the republics of Pisa and Genoa. The final decline, however, was marked by the War of the Vespers, fought between the Kingdom of Aragon and the House of Anjou for the rule of Southern Italy.
Traditional paper production, Amalfi
The city was invaded several times and was subjected to Catalan authority in the 15th century. The violent raids – between Saracens and Pirates – led to the construction of defence towers and fortresses built from the 9th to the 17th century, providing views all along the Amalfi Coast from Vietri sul Mare to Positano.
Centuries of famine, plague and depopulation continued. But at the start of the 1800s, Giuseppe Bonaparte was captivated by the Amalfi Coast and decided to build a large coastal road that went all the way to the capital, Naples. Since then, these places have become extraordinary tourist destinations, protected as Unesco World Heritage sites.
“Judgement Day, for the people of Amalfi who will go to paradise, will be a day like any other,” wrote the late Tuscan writer Renato Fucini in 1877. “How can one disagree with Fucini’s ode?” comments Enza Cobalto, the Councillor for Amalfi Culture, “those who choose it as a destination for their travels are both lucky and wise.”
Duomo di Amalfi