August 18th, 2010
After countless visitors have blissfully mentioned their visit to the Amalfi Coast, I decide I must go now. Last year, I tried for the impossible – no crowds and good weather – and never went. The train from Rome leaves promptly at 5:41 AM and, after a little scurrying at Napoli Centrale, I find the ticket booth for the narrow-guage “Circumvesuviana” train. We pass numerous graffitied stations in the Naples suburbs. The defacing is so good and so thorough they seem more art installations than blight. One stop sports the words “Surf Love” in day-glo letters, just to the left is a perfectly serene view of the bay. By 10AM, I am poking around the streets of Sorrento, famous for its drop-dead views of the Bay of Naples and looming Mount Vesuvius in the bluer-than-blue distance. The town is welcoming, but something of its soul has been surrendered for tourists. Walking the streets, you can imagine what the place must have been like without view-hogging hotels, cheaply made post-war buildings and a traffic-choaked central square. By noon, I am on a line of about a hundred people for a bus to Amalfi. The Italian talent for mastering chaos just in time comes into play when three buses pull up – one going only as far as Positano, a very popular mid-point destination. For two glorious hours I ride the heart-stopping road that follows the coast mid-way up the Lattari Mountains. Views of inaccessible coves and umbrellaed beaches are punctuated with the vibrant greens of an oak and pine forest. A man reaches out, precipitously far, to pluck fresh figs by the roadside...and, always, couples standing in silence and looking out at impossibly azure waters framed by sheer, craggy cliffs. The industry with which terraces have been built for olive trees and vineyards reveals a proud and independent culture beneath the beach holiday façade. An early medieval trading center, Amalfi was a prize for many warring princes, but was in decline by the 12th century. Such a history is always a blessing for the tourist since with economic and political failure comes – nothing. The result is a well-preserved medieval town by the sea. I pay the three euros to see the Cloister of Paradise (with that name who wouldn’t?), the tasteful, columned burial ground of Amalfi’s nobility. An ungainly grand piano, covered in a blue tarp, mocks the peaceful setting. Concert tickets anyone? Inside the adjoining 9th century Basilica of the Crucifix lie gem-encrusted treasures of the Cathedral; the frescoed crypt holds the remains of Saint Andrew the Apostle, “liberated” from Constantinople by Cardinal Pietro Capuano during the plunderous Fourth Crusade (1204). My bus driver for the 90 minute ride to Salerno jokes with passengers as they take their seats and stops four times in Piazza Flavio Gioia to pick up stragglers before setting out on the hairpin turns of our route. Defensive towers from the days of Almalfi’s glory pass by, some in ruins, others transformed into exclusive restaurants. Our driver is so friendly, I ask him to stop the bus near Salerno’s Duomo in the medieval quarter. This saves me nearly an hour’s walk. It seems as if no tourists are in this beautiful city. Locals are enjoying their Riviera-style promenade; those not strolling are seated in outdoor cafes enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. I climb the crooked, shadowed streets up a slope to the Cathedral of Saint Matthew (1085). It enjoys the luxury of a walled and colonnaded forecourt, providing space needed to appreciate its Norman-Arabic belltower and 11th century bronze door. A sacristian invites me to the crypt where the remains of Saint Matthew lie. Ceiling frescos and baroque decorations by Domenico Fontana match his crypt for Saint Andrew in Amalfi. Upstairs the glory of the church is the double ambo (pulpit), a masterwork of Cosmati-style mosaics from the Norman period. By getting slightly lost, I stumble upon a recently-opened excavation site. The expert attendant shuts the door when I enter and gives me a twenty minute lecture on the complex history of this piece of ground: it began as a Roman bath in the second century and, in the fifth century, was put to use as an early Christian church and cemetery. The Lombard, Arechi II made Salerno his capital and built a palace court; he had to construct it on pillars above where we are now standing because the ground level had risen. Based on 8th century accounts, it was a marvel of rare marble inlays (opus sectile). Later this hall (currently closed) served as the assembly room for Europe’s first medical school (11th century), while the Christian church below was refrescoed by the Normans and put to use again. It is a dizzying presentation, but impressive – so much has happened here, and it has been so carefully preserved. I am now in a bit of a rush to make the train back to Napoli Centrale, but another sacristan appears as I walk down Via Mercanti, the medieval shopping street. He beckons me to his crypt where he proudly describes a restored, wall-sized crucifixion scene from the 10th century. Via Mercanti makes a seamless exit from the medieval town into the modern one – a wide pedestrian mall, lined with shops. Everyone seems to be here, picking up some needed item before heading home for dinner. My last view of the Bay of Naples is from the 7PM, bringing me back to Napoli Centrale: passengers stare out the windows, as I do across the aisle, into mesmerizing pastel sunset.
September 18th, 2010
The church next to ours is Santa Maria della Vittoria and sometimes people want to know “what victory?” Today, I satisfy my own curiosity and finally read the pamphlet on sale in their sacristy. Like so many things in Rome, it’s not simple. The Discalced Carmelites had built a chapel to Saint Paul on the spot but the great building efforts of Baroque Rome moved them to go big. In 1646, a few decades after the church was completed, the Venetian Cardinal Federico Cornaro commissioned Bernini to sculpt Saint Theresa of Avila, founder of the Discalced Carmelites, in a mystical ecstasy. The Cardinal stipulated that Bernini himself (and not members of his workshop) complete the statue. The result was Bernini’s most celebrated piece; it captures the pain and joy of ecstacy to such a degree that it seems private moment but presented for all the world to see; a hidden skylight and theater boxes filled with members of the Cornaro family add to its daring. “Saint Therese in Ecstacy” fascinates everyone – from the pious, to fans of “The Da Vinci Code” (in which a cardinal is set on fire in front of the statue). While this masterpiece is the reason people have this church on their “short list,” the reason for its name comes from a skirmish at the beginning of the Thirty Years War in 1620. At a low point in the fighting, that is, when the Catholic side seemed to be losing against the Protestants, the chaplain of the Catholic forces, a Discalced Carmelite, found a small and defaced image of the Holy Family in a nearby castle. He tied the picture around his neck and raced into battle. Immediately rays of light from the picture dazzled the enemy and they were routed. This miraculous image was solemnly brought to the church two years later. It was placed above the high altar and appropriately framed with an enormous sunburst. A fire destroyed it in 1833, but Prince Alexander Torlonia – known as the Roman Rothschild – restored the altar and a copy of the miraculous image, exact even to the cut out eyes of Mary and Joseph. So the church now holds a copy of a miraculous image and one of the most famous statues in the world, both work their magic, attracting every kind of pilgrim.